Kuala Lumpur, March 9 (IANS): The whereabouts of a Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines jetliner missing with 239 aboard since early Saturday are still unknown despite a round-the-clock search operation even as Malaysian authorities said on Sunday the plane may have turned back before disappearing.
The aircraft vanished without a trace about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur. Over a day since its last contact with the air controllers, there was no sign of the plane or its wreckage, Xinhua reported.
The Boeing 777-200ER was presumed to have crashed off the Vietnamese coast Saturday into the South China Sea.
In a twist to the entire episode, Malaysian authorities are investigating two passengers who had used false passports to board the plane, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Department of Civil Aviation of Malaysia, told the media earlier Sunday.
Two people, an Italian and an Austrian, whose names were on the passengers list, reportedly did not board the aircraft and both had lost their passports, Xinhua quoted Rahman as saying.
Gen. Rodzali Daud, the Royal Malaysian Air Force chief, told a press conference Sunday that the military radar indicated there was a possibility the missing aircraft made a turnback, deviating from its set course.
"We have looked into the recording on the radar and realised that there is a possibility the aircraft did make a turnback," the air force chief said.
A Vietnamese helicopter discovered two oil slicks in waters off the Vietnam coast at the suspected area where the plane went missing, an official with the search operation confirmed Sunday.
The Malaysian rescue teams have expanded their scope of search and have dispatched 22 helicopters and 40 ships in hunt for the missing jetliner.
The air force chief said the plane lost contact with the ground at 1.30 am local time on Saturday while flying over the South China Sea. "There was no sign of abnormalities on the aircraft," civil aviation cheif Rahman said.
Italian investigators said on Saturday Luigi Maraldi, who was thought to be on the missing aircraft, is not on the aircraft as his passport was stolen in Thailand in August last year.
The 37-year-old Italian's name was on the boarding list furnished by Malaysia Airlines.
Maraldi phoned his father Walter, a resident of Italy's Cesena city, Saturday to tell him that he was not on the missing plane but safely in Thailand, Xinhua cited his father as telling the media.
An Austrian, whose name was also on the boarding list, had his passport stolen as well. The Austrian foreign ministry said the man was safe at home.
A statement by Malaysian acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the authorities are looking at four possible cases of suspected identities.
In a statement, Malaysia Airlines said it feared the worst for the missing plane.
"...A disaster recovery management specialist from Atlanta, US, will be assisting Malaysia Airlines in this crucial time," the airline said.
It disclosed the missing plane's wingtip was repaired by Boeing before returning to fly.
China also sent an emergency response team Sunday morning to find the plane.
A team assembled by the Chinese transport ministry set out from the Sanya port in Hainan province to the South China Sea area where the flight may have plunged, Xinhua reported.
Rescue vessel "South China Sea Rescue 101" with 12 divers and salvagers will join another rescue vessel "South China Sea Rescue 115" at the site.
Sanya port is 700 sea miles from the possible crash site. Both the rescue vessels have helipads which enable air search.
As of 1 p.m. Sunday, another vessel "China Coast Guard 3411" entered the waters in the vicinity of the spot where the plane was believed to have been when it lost contact with ground control, according to China's State Oceanic Administration.
The vessel found eight ships in the nearby waters and has contacted two Malaysian ships among the eight. They said they found nothing related to the plane.
An international search and rescue mission from Malaysia, China, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States was mobilised with the sea mission. Search operations continued overnight and air mission resumed at daybreak Sunday.
The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.41 am on Saturday and was due to land in Beijing at 6.30 am the same day. The 227 passengers on the flight included five Indians, 154 Chinese and 38 Malaysians.