Passenger With Stolen Passport Had No Terror Ties, Police Say


The Malaysian police said on Tuesday that one of the two passengers known to have used stolen passports to board the missing Malaysian airliner was a 19-year-old Iranian who wanted to migrate to Germany and appeared to have no connection to terrorist organizations.

The passenger, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, who was using a passport that had been stolen from an Austrian man, was traveling to Germany, where he was to meet his mother, said Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police.

Malaysian police provided photographs of 19-year-old Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, left, and an unidentified man at the airport
Malaysian police provided photographs of 19-year-old Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, left, and an unidentified man at the airport

“We are in contact with his mother,” Mr. Khalid said at a news conference.

Mr. Khalid said that the authorities had not yet identified the second passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 who had been traveling on a stolen passport, but he said that the person had arrived in Malaysia on the same day, Feb. 28.

In the first detailed comments by the police here since Flight MH370 disappeared Saturday en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Khalid said that the police were still investigating the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage and possible psychological or personal problems among the crew and passengers. Other agencies in Malaysia continue to investigate noncriminal explanations for the aircraft’s disappearance.

Mr. Khalid said that previous reports by Malaysian officials that five passengers had failed to board the flight were false. “Everybody that booked the flight boarded the plane,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France, on Tuesday, Ronald K. Noble, the agency’s secretary general, said the evidence emerging about the two Iranians suggested that they were not likely to be linked to any terror groups.

“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident,” Mr. Noble said.

He added that the two men had travelled to Kuala Lumpur on Iranian passports before using the stolen Italian and Austrian passports to board the ill-fated Malaysian flight.

Also on Tuesday, the police in the Thai resort town of Pattaya said that they had questioned an Iranian man who paid cash for the tickets of the two passengers who traveled on false passports. The man they questioned, Hashem Saheb Gharani Golestani, 51, runs a frame shop in Pattaya and was a friend of an Iranian, a frequent customer of a local travel agency, who booked the tickets from abroad, the police said. Mr. Hashem was released after questioning, the police said.

The stolen passports used to board Flight MH370 had been taken during the past two years in Phuket, another Thai beach resort. Both destinations attract budget tourists from Russia, China, Europe and the Middle East and have become centers of crime, particularly human trafficking and the counterfeiting of travel documents.

The fact that two passengers on Flight MH370 carried the passports of an Italian and an Austrian that had been stolen in Thailand, and traveled on tickets bought in Thailand by an Iranian who does not live there, has raised the possibility that the passengers were part of a people-trafficking scheme.

An Iranian, Seyed Ramin, suspected of commanding one of Southeast Asia’s biggest human-trafficking and counterfeit passport syndicates was arrested in Pattaya in June 2012. But the police chief in Pattaya, Col. Supachai Phuikaewkhum, said in an interview Tuesday that he had found no connection between Mr. Hashem, whom he described as “coming and going” from Iran to Pattaya, and Seyed Ramin.

The one-way tickets bought for the passengers were routed from Kuala Lumpur with a transit stop in Beijing, according to Benjaporn Krutnait, the manager of the Grand Horizon travel agency. One ticket then went to Copenhagen, the other to Frankfurt, she said Monday.

Grand Horizon has a bold sign, Teheran Tours, above its shop front on a busy commercial street. Nearby, a store sold Middle Eastern carpets, Buddha statues and paintings of Arab men

Two Thai women working at Grand Horizon refused to answer questions Tuesday. A man selling SIM cards and mobile phone chargers outside the store said Ms. Benjaporn had flown to Bangkok on Monday night after being questioned by police.

Colonel Supachai said that he did not know the identity of the two men who used the stolen passports, and that he did not know if they had been in Thailand before boarding the flight in Kuala Lumpur. He did not know, he said, if the passports used to board the flight had exit stamps from Thailand or entry stamps into Malaysia.

Before leaving for Bangkok, Ms. Benjaporn said Monday that the purchaser of the tickets, a Mr. Ali, first asked her to book cheap tickets to Europe for the two men on March 1. She made reservations for one of the men on a Qatar Airways flight, and the other on Etihad, she said.

Those tickets expired, she said, because Mr. Ali did not confirm them. Last Thursday, she booked the tickets again, this time on Malaysia Airlines through China Southern Airlines on a code-share arrangement. She chose Malaysia Airlines because it was cheapest, she said.

Mr. Hashem bought the tickets for about $625 each, the police said.

In the interview on Monday, Ms. Benjaporn said that she had known Mr. Ali for about three years, and that he bought tickets from her agency for himself or for others about once a month.

SOURCE:  The New York Times