MALAYSIA - The increasingly desperate search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner has run into a wall of false leads at sea, and confusion over the identity of two impostors who boarded the flight with stolen passports.
Hopes of a breakthrough discovery of the plane's wreckage were swiftly dashed on Monday by the Malaysian and Vietnamese authorities, who confirmed that earlier sightings of debris and oil slicks were unrelated to the plane.
There was also little clarity on a growing subplot involving the two impostors, and whether they had anything to do with the plane's presumed crash.
The duo were initially described by Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as having "Asian facial features". But hours later, civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said they were "not Asian-looking men", and suggested that one of them could have a dark complexion.
Comments by Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar added to the confusion. He partially identified the duo by saying one of them was from neither Malaysia nor China's restive Xinjiang province, which has been beset by violence blamed on Islamist militants and separatists. Mr Khalid declined to give details, saying: "I can confirm that (one of the impostors) is not a Malaysian, but cannot divulge which country he is from yet. The man is not from Xinjiang in China."
The Malaysian authorities have not ruled out foul play in the disappearance of Flight MH370, which departed for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) early on Saturday morning with 239 passengers and crew on board.
There has been no evidence of terrorism so far, though regional airports from Cambodia to Vietnam have tightened security. Malaysian security officials are poring over closed-circuit television footage for signs of suspicious activity and have shared information on the two impostors with other intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, the Boeing 777-200 plane continued to elude investigators despite a massive 10-country search operation that enters its fourth day today.
The jetliner disappeared from the radar about 120 nautical miles from Kota Baru on Malaysia's east coast. Repeated sightings of debris and oil slicks in recent days all turned out to be false leads.
For instance, a floating yellow object in the waters off southern Vietnam that was thought to be a possible life raft turned out to be part of an undersea cable.
Results from a chemistry lab analysis on Monday also debunked talk that an oil slick in Malaysian waters was from the fuel of the missing plane. The slick turned out to be from nearby ships.
However, Malaysian officials said they were not giving up and were instead expanding the search area from the initial 20-nautical-mile radius to 100 nautical miles. Some of the 74 aircraft and ships involved in the operation were also searching the Strait of Malacca and overland in Malaysia, after a review of military radar showed that the plane may have attempted to turn back to KLIA.
The disappearance and elusiveness of MH370, while rare, is not unprecedented. In 2009, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing 216 passengers and 12 crew.
Debris was not found for days, and it took two years for investigators to locate the wreckage.
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