KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia said Tuesday "no ill feelings" were meant by a transport official's reference to black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli when discussing two suspicious passengers on a missing jet, a comment that triggered social media scorn.
"No ill feelings were meant to the personality concerned. We hope this clarifies the issue," said a statement by the Ministry of Transportation.
Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman had been asked late Monday to confirm another official's assertion that the two men who used stolen European passports to board missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 looked "Asian".
The plane vanished early Saturday with 239 people aboard while en route from Malaysia to China.
Azharuddin denied they looked Asian, but he sought to emphasise that skin colour does not indicate nationality, using as an example the Ghanaian-born AC Milan striker Balotelli, who is an Italian international.
"Do you know a footballer by the name of Bartoli (sic)? He's an Italian. Do you know what he looks like? Balotelli," he told reporters late on Monday.
"I don't want to dwell about this but they (nationality and race) are not the same thing." Malaysian police later said one of the men was Iranian.
The second is yet to be identified but photos from security video cameras released by police showed he was not black.
Twitter users commented that Azharuddin's strained comparison had not helped matters.
One said: "Nice work in looking for the least obvious cause for an airplane crash." "The case of the missing airplane, somehow, just got weirder," another said, while one post called the reference "insensitive." An extensive sea and land search has turned up no wreckage so far. The plane was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it went missing, apparently over waters between Malaysia and Vietnam.
Malaysian authorities have come under increasing pressure from victims' families who have complained of a slow response and inadequate information.
One of the stolen passports was Italian, the other Austrian. The revelation raised fears of a hijack or terror motive behind the plane's disappearance, but police said the Iranian man appeared to have no terror links.
"And you wonder why Balotelli wears 'why always me?'" a Twitter posting said, referring to a T-shirt worn once by the controversial footballer after one of his many brushes with authority.