An Iranian man made the travel arrangements for the two men who used stolen passports on the Malaysia Airlines flight which has gone missing since Saturday, the Financial Times reported.
The information was provided to the the newspaper by the Thai travel agent in Pattaya, Thailand, who booked the tickets for the men.
The two men were travelling on flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Italian and Austrian passports that were later confirmed to have been lost or stolen. They were then scheduled to fly together to Amsterdam, before catching separate connecting flights to Copenhagen and Frankfurt.
While their use of stolen passports has raised fears of terrorist involvement, travel documents are stolen frequently in the region and used for illegal immigration or criminal activities such as drug smuggling.
Benjaporn Krutnait, owner of the Grand Horizon Travel agency, said the Iranian, a long-term business contact who she knew only as “Mr Ali”, first asked her to book cheap tickets to Europe for the two men on March 1. She initially reserved one of the men on a Qatar Airways flight and the other on Etihad.
But the tickets expired when Benjaporn did not hear back from Ali. When he contacted her again on Thursday, she rebooked the men on the Malaysia Airlines flight through Beijing because it was the cheapest available. She booked the tickets through China Southern Airlines via a code share arrangement.
A friend of Ali paid Benjaporn cash for the tickets, she said, adding that it was quite common for people to book tickets in Pattaya through middle men such as Ali, who then take a commission.
Ali could not be reached for comment on a Tehran mobile number provided by Benjaporn. She added that she had known him for about three years, during which time he spent a lot of time in Pattaya and booked travel for himself or his contacts at least once a month on average. There is no evidence that Ali knew the two men were travelling on stolen passports.
Benjaporn said she did not believe Ali was linked to terrorism, particularly as he had not specified booking the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight but had instead asked for the cheapest route to Europe. She said she was speaking about the case because she was concerned over the speculation about a terrorist attack and wanted the facts to be known.
The details on how the pair arranged their travel came as the official in charge of the search for the missing aircraft declared its disappearance “an unprecedented missing aircraft mystery” and said tantalizing leads reported at the weekend had evaporated.
“We have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft itself,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said on Monday in Kuala Lumpur. “We will be intensifying our efforts to locate the aircraft.”
Both men who used stolen passports had “gone through the full protocol of [airport] security”, Azharuddin said.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now