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Aviation

Malaysia jet search area widened after reports the plane switched course

There are indications a missing Malaysia Airlines jet flew hundreds of kilometers after losing contact with civilian air traffic control. Meanwhile, Interpol says two men using stolen passports were illegal immigrants.

Searchers have widened their focus to a wider area including land on the Malaysian peninsula, the Strait of Malacca and an area north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, following information gained from military radar.

"It [the missing jet] changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude. It made it to the Malacca Strait," an unnamed senior Malaysian military officer who had been briefed on investigations told the Reuters news agency.

The Berita Harian newspaper from Malaysia quoted air force head Rodzali Daud as saying the plane was last detected at 2:40 a.m. (1840 Friday UTC) by military radar near the tiny Pulau Perak island, at the northern end of the Malacca Strait, flying about 1,000 meters lower than its previous altitude of 10,670 meters (35,000 feet).

The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12.40 a.m. Saturday (1640 Friday UTC) and location indicated by the military radar data represents a major departure from the flight's original course. No distress signal was given before the disappearance.

The search operation for flight MH370 includes at least 42 ships and 35 aircraft from Southeast Asian nations as well as China, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Despite the extensive searches, no sign of the plane has been found.

ID fraud passengers 'probably not terrorists'

While Malaysia and United States FBI agents have opened an investigation into the possibility of a terrorist link with the jet's disappearance, authorities now believe two passengers who were revealed to be traveling on stolen passports appeared to have been young illegal immigrants from Iran seeking a new life in Europe.

Interpol says Pouria Nourmohammadi, 18, and Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, 29, traveled from Doha to Kuala Lumpur on their valid Iranian passports. They then switched to the stolen Austrian and Italian passport to board MH370.

"It is part of a human-smuggling issue and not part of a terrorist issue," Interpol chief Ronald Noble said, adding that the agency was becoming increasingly certain the men were "probably not terrorists."

Iran has offered its assistance to the Malaysian investigation.

US Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan said terrorism could not be ruled out.

Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines is also investigating a report on Australian television alleging that the co-pilot of the missing plane had breached security rules by inviting two women into the cockpit during a flight two years ago.

se/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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