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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Officials investigating the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner with 239 people on board suspect it may have disintegrated in midflight, a senior source said on Sunday, as Vietnam officials reported a possible sighting of wreckage from the plane.
International police agency Interpol confirmed that two passengers on the flight had used stolen Austrian and Italian passports, raising suspicions of foul play.
An Interpol spokesman said a check of all documents used to board the plane had revealed more “suspect passports” that were being further investigated. She was unable to say how many, or from which countries.
Malaysia’s state news agency quoted Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying the passengers using the stolen European passports were of Asian appearance, and criticizing border officials who let them through.
“Can’t these immigration officials think? Italian and Austrian [passport holders] but with Asian faces,” he was quoted as saying.
Nearly 48 hours after the last contact with Flight MH370, mystery still surrounded its fate. Malaysia’s air force chief said the Beijing-bound airliner may have turned back from its scheduled route before it vanished from radar screens.
“The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,” a source involved in the investigations said.
If the plane had plunged intact from close to its cruising altitude, breaking up only on impact with the water, search teams would have expected to find a fairly concentrated pattern of debris, the source said.
Asked about the possibility of an explosion, such as a bomb, the source said there was no evidence yet of foul play and that the aircraft could have broken up because of mechanical causes.
Dozens of military and civilian vessels have been criss-crossing waters beneath the aircraft’s flight path, but have found no confirmed trace of the lost plane.
Oil slicks have been reported in the sea south of Vietnam and east of Malaysia.
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Late Sunday, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam indicated that a Vietnamese navy plane had spotted an object in the sea suspected of being part of the missing plane, but that it was too dark to be certain.
Search planes will return to investigate the suspected debris today.
“The outcome so far is there is no sign of the aircraft,” Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.
“On the possibility of hijack, we are not ruling out any possibility,” he said.
Malaysian authorities said they were widening the search to cover vast stretches of sea around Malaysia and off Vietnam, and were investigating at least two passengers who were using false identity documents.
The passenger manifest issued by the airline included the names of two Europeans — Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi — who, according to their foreign ministries, were not on the plane.
Their passports were stolen in Thailand during the last two years.
The BBC reported that the men falsely using their passports had purchased tickets together and were scheduled to fly on to Europe from Beijing, meaning they did not have to apply for a Chinese visa and undergo further checks.
An employee at a travel agency in Pattaya, Thailand, said the two had purchased the tickets there.
In a sign that Malaysia’s airport controls may have been breached, Prime Minister Najib Razak said security procedures were being reviewed.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said authorities were checking the identities of two other passengers.
He said help was also being sought from the FBI.
The 11-year-old Boeing 777-200ER took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.
It last had contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu.
Flight tracking Web site flightaware.com showed it flew northeast after takeoff, climbed to 35,000 feet, and was still climbing when it vanished from tracking records.
There were no reports of bad weather.
Vietnamese naval boats patrolled stretches of the Gulf of Thailand, scouring the area where an oil slick was spotted by patrol jets just before nightfall on Saturday.
Besides the Vietnamese vessels, Malaysia and neighboring countries have deployed 34 aircraft and 40 ships in the search.
China and the United States have sent ships to help, and Washington has also deployed a maritime surveillance plane.
U.S. officials from Boeing, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Federal Aviation Administration were on the way to Asia to help in investigations, NTSB said.
The airline has said 14 nationalities were among the passengers, including at least 152 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French, and three Americans.