Jet imposters 'more likely migrants than terrorists'

Jet imposters 'more likely migrants than terrorists'
This reproduction of Malaysian police handout photographs shows 19-year-old Iranian Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad (left) and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, who both boarded the missing MH370 flight using stolen European passports.

BANGKOK - The two mystery passengers who triggered an international terrorism probe into a missing Malaysian jet now appear to be young Iranian migrants seeking a new life overseas, officials said Tuesday.

The case of the pair, who travelled with stolen passports, has focused attention on the murky world of people smuggling, particularly through Southeast Asia, which has long been renowned as a hub of illegal migration and human trafficking.

Interpol said Tuesday the two men were believed to have travelled to Kuala Lumpur via Doha using Iranian passports - not reported stolen - under the names of Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, aged 29, and Pouria Nourmohammadi, 18.

They then switched to stolen Austrian and Italian passports to board Beijing-bound flight MH370, which vanished Saturday with 239 people on board.

Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said it appeared increasingly certain "these two individuals were probably not terrorists".

"The interest seems to be dying down because they might just be people who were being smuggled or trafficked," he told a news conference in France.

"And from Interpol's perspective the fear or the concern we should all have is that more than a billion times each year there are people that either cross borders or board planes without having passports screened against Interpol's database," he added.

Thai police said a suspected Iranian people smuggler had booked the tickets for the two men on flight MH370 through travel agencies in Pattaya, a seedy seaside city renowned for its flourishing sex industry.

The man, named as "Mr Ali", reserved the seats under the names of two Europeans whose passports were stolen in the kingdom.

"We believe that these two passports were stolen by a human smuggling gang who send people to work in third countries, especially European countries," Police Lieutenant General Panya Maman, commander of southern region police, told AFP.

He said "Mr Ali" was believed to live in Malaysia and has links to a gang that specialises in smuggling Middle Eastern people to Europe via third countries. The ring has connections in Pattaya and the Thai resort island of Phuket.

He estimated that 2,000 passports were lost or stolen in Thailand each year. Iran offered its assistance with the Malaysian investigation into two of its nationals.

"We are offering our cooperation to obtain more information," foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, pledging that Tehran would provide "any information on the Iranians and their status as soon as it is available".

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