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Malaysian flight leaves trail of anguish, mystery -- and little else

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BEIJING -- Every few hours, a shard of information would drift across the TV screen: An object -- perhaps a door -- had been spotted. A yellow item -- could it be a life raft? -- had been seen. A new oil slick had been discovered, and samples were en route to a lab.

Zhu Daoping spent Monday glued to news, watching for some hint of the fate of his longtime friend and colleague Liu Rusheng, an accomplished calligrapher from Nanjing, China, who also excelled at painting birds and flowers. Liu and his wife were aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 early Saturday, bound for Beijing after a cultural exchange trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a group of Chinese artists, when the plane vanished.

“He’s cheerful and has a great sense of humor. He’s been traveling a lot since he retired and enjoying it, both in China and outside. We went to Cambodia together,” Zhu said. “I’m very anxious -- I just keep watching the news. First, they say they found a door, then they say it’s not true. Then they say maybe it’s a terror attack, then they say, let’s not speculate.”

PHOTOS: Malaysia Airlines jet missing

Despite the efforts of some 40 boats and three dozen planes, the three-day search for the missing Boeing 777 off the southern coast of Vietnam has yielded nothing but dashed hopes for the friends and family members of the 239 people aboard. By Monday evening, Malaysian and Vietnamese authorities said they had yet to find anything linked to the airliner and that the search area was being expanded and the operation “intensified.”

With no material evidence from the aircraft, however, attention was focused on the fact that two passengers had used stolen passports, one Italian, one Austrian, to board the plane.

Malaysian authorities, who said earlier that they had closed-circuit video recordings of the passengers, revealed Monday that they had identified one of the two men who used the passports.

“I can confirm that he is not a Malaysian, but cannot divulge which country he is from yet,” Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar told the Star, a major Malaysian newspaper. He added that the man is also not from Xinjiang, China -- a northwestern province of the mainland that is home to minority Uighurs.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's civil aviation chief, said the two men were “not Asian-looking men.”

That dampened speculation that Uighur separatists might have been behind the jet’s disappearance. Uighur separatists have been blamed for a knifing rampage in southwestern China this month that left 29 dead.

Security authorities have cautioned that use of stolen or forged passports is more frequent than commonly assumed and does not necessarily indicate that terrorist forces might have been involved in the plane’s disappearance.

Adding to concerns that foul play might be involved, however, a Taiwanese official said that officials received an anonymous tip last week warning terrorists were targeting Beijing’s international airport.

But the official, Cai Desheng, chief of Taiwan's national security bureau, told Taiwan’s official news agency that the call received by his agency last Tuesday was “not likely’’ to be linked to the mysterious disappearance four days later of the flight from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to Beijing.

Malaysian authorities say they have ruled nothing out as a cause of the Boeing 777’s disappearance. Nevertheless, the anonymous call was one of dozens of possibly inconsequential clues that investigators are examining as they struggle to explain how the flight simply vanished.

According to the report by Taiwan’s Central News Agency, a man speaking Chinese claimed to have information of planned attacks directed against Beijing’s airport and subway system by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group seeking independence for the Uighurs. The caller identified himself as a member of a French-based anti-terror network and said he had called Taiwan’s national airline because he couldn’t reach anybody in Beijing.

As a result, Cai said that Taiwan “stepped up security checks at the airport, especially for flights destined to Beijing.” Security officials also notified their counterparts in Beijing.

Taiwan, which has been self-ruled since 1949, is considered a breakaway province by Beijing, but today enjoys close economic relations with the mainland.

Chinese authorities blamed Uighur separatists for the brutal knifing rampage March 1 at a train station in the city of Kunming in southwestern China. During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Beijing authorities claimed to have foiled amateurish plots by Uighurs to hijack or blow up airplanes.

The missing aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight included more than 150 mainland Chinese. With nerves fraying at a hotel near the Beijing airport where families had been told to gather, Chinese authorities urged Malaysia to step up efforts to locate the missing jet.

VIDEOS: Search continues for missing jet

“We hope Malaysia can fully understand China, especially the mood of the Chinese passengers' families, and speed up investigation, search and rescue efforts,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

Search and rescue teams from Australia, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, New Zealand and the United States were participating in the effort. China’s state-run CCTV news said Beijing had mobilized 10 satellites to help locate the plane. A team of officials from China’s foreign ministry, public security ministry and aviation experts were also dispatched to Malaysia on Monday.

“We are grateful for these efforts,” Malaysia Airlines said in a statement Monday evening.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Twitter: @JulieMakLAT, @BarbaraDemick

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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