Investigations into the stolen passports of two passengers listed on missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 have swung to the Thai resort island of Phuket, where there is a thriving stolen passport racket.
Police in Malaysia have also viewed CCTV footage of the passengers on the flight, specifically looking for images of two men listed as Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel.
Mr Maraldi, 37, was surprised to see his name on the passenger manifest because he was in fact holidaying in Thailand.
He rang his father, Walter in Cesena, Italy, according to Italian press reports.
“Ciao, dad,” the younger Maraldi said.
“Have you heard the news about the missing plane? Don’t worry, it wasn’t me who was listed as a passenger on board. I don’t know why my name is on the list, or what happened but I’m ok. I’m in Thailand.”
On an earlier trip to Phuket in August last year Mr Maraldi had his passport stolen from a car rental agency.
According to media reports quoting Austrian authorities Mr Kozel had his passport stolen in the same part of Phuket 18 months earlier.
Both Mr Maraldi are Mr Kozel are reportedly men with average builds and both wear eye glasses.
The Italian honorary consul in Phuket Francesco Pensato confirmed Mr Maraldi is in Phuket and Italian authorities are checking whether the man on the plane may have been a different man with the same name and date of birth. Malaysia Airlines’ code-share partner China Southern Airlines had sold seven tickets for flight 370, including those in the names of Maraldi and Kozel.
Malaysian authorities are cautiously saying talk about the possibility of a terrorist attack bringing down the plane is pre-mature.
“We are looking at all possibilities – it’s too early to reach any conclusions,” said Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak.
But the curious thefts of the passports will be a focus of a team of FBI investigators who are flying from the United States to assist Malaysian and other international investigators.
Malaysian authorities have not commented on the CCTV video of the passengers who boarded the early morning Saturday flight at Kuala Lumpur's international airport for the almost six hour flight to Beijing.
CCTV footage of their luggage has also been scrutinised.
“We cannot reveal any more for security reasons,” said Department of Civil Aviation official Azharuddin Abdul Rahman.
Hundreds of passports are lost or stolen on Phuket each year, raising fears they could fall into the hands of criminal or terrorist networks.
Honorary consuls representing countries there often deal with tourists who report their passports missing.
Former Australian honorary consult Larry Cunningham, who retired from his Phuket posting last September, said during his time as consul passport thefts occurred regularly.
“Some passports were certainly lost, falling out of pockets or being genuinely misplaced. But there were also substantial incidents of passports being stolen,” he said.
Six Syrian men have been held at Phuket airport for months after travelling on fake Greek passports.
The story Missing plane highlights Phuket's stolen passport trade first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.