KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Beijing sent delegations here Monday to probe two stolen passports as reports surfaced that an Iranian man purchased the two tickets used by those passengers on the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared Saturday off the coast of Vietnam.
Chinese diplomat Guo Shaochun arrived with a 10-member working group from the Chinese ministries of foreign affairs, transport, public security and the civil aviation administration. Earlier, a team from China's Ministry of Public Security arrived to discuss the passports with their Malaysian counterparts.
The passports, one Italian and one Austrian, were stolen in Thailand in 2012 and 2013. CNN and the Financial Times, citing Thai police, reported that an Iranian man named Kazem Ali purchased the tickets used with the passports for two friends who he said wanted to return home to Europe. The tickets were paid for in cash, the reports said.
Electronic booking records show the one-way tickets were issued Thursday from a travel agency in the beach resort of Pattaya in eastern Thailand. Thai police Col. Supachai Phuykaeokam said those reservations were actually placed with the agency by a second travel agency in Pattaya, Grand Horizon.
Thai police and Interpol officers questioned the owners. The travel agency's owner, Benjaporn Krutnait, told The Financial Times she believed Ali was not connected to terrorism because he had asked for the cheapest tickets to Europe and did not specify the Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight.
Authorities in Malaysia have been quoted by local media as saying that one of the two men had been identified.
Guo said he hoped his team would help speed up Malaysia's investigation of the jet's disappearance and improve co-ordination between the several countries now involved. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the Chinese government "urges the Malaysian side to step up their efforts to speed up the investigation and provide accurate information to China in a timely fashion."
The Global Times, a leading Chinese Communist Party newspaper, was less diplomatic. "The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities," said a biting editorial. "The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough. There are loopholes in the work of Malaysia Airlines and security authorities."
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing with 239 people aboard -- most of them Chinese -- when it vanished from radar screens.
Late Monday, Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Transport Pham Quy Tieu said a third day of search and rescue operations failed to turn up a trace of the jet. He said four countries have been authorized to search in Vietnamese territory — Malaysia, Singapore, China and the USA. Overall, ten countries were involved in the search.
He said operations would continue Tuesday and would include more aircraft to cover a wider search area. Phu Quoc, a resort island in the Gulf of Thailand, has been established as the command center for Vietnam's efforts to locate the jet.
Chinese relatives of missing passengers were preparing to board a reserved Malaysia Airlines flight, leaving early Tuesday from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur. Passengers on another Malaysia Airlines flight from China on Monday expressed few concerns about safety, but admitted their relatives were worried.
"My parents have been paranoid, but I was in the middle of a trip and had to take the return flight," said Sohail Walia, 37, an architect from Bombay, who flew from Guangzhou in south China to Kuala Lumpur Monday. His outward journey came the day before the disappearance of flight MH370.
Walia flies internationally every 3 months, and 10 days each month within India, but will not be changing his routine. The tragedy "could have happened on the road, or on a train," he said. "If you're destined to go wrong at some place, you are made to reach that place. You can't be scared not to live life, you have to go on."
"The airport and the whole country is sad," sad Lin Mohammed, a tourism representative at Kuala Lumpur airport. "We have several races, Indian, Chinese Malay, and different religions, but they united in response," she said. "Everybody is hoping to find the plane, and to find it safe."
As some Chinese relatives prepared to travel, with rapidly processed passports and visas, more details emerged of the lives and dreams of their missing relatives. Yao Lifei, 31, became fed up with the prospective brides his parents kept finding, in their poor village in north China's Hebei province. So he swapped Chinese construction sites for one in Singapore where his labors could earn better wages than in China and, in time, a better girlfriend back home, said Yao's brother-in-law Monday, who only gave his surname, Zhang.
Yao's father arrived at the Beijing Lido hotel Sunday, where the airline has gathered Chinese relatives, but his mother stayed in Dingzhou, where she collapsed on hearing the news of her son's plane, and has stayed in bed crying for several days, said Zhang.
Online speculation in China has suggested, without evidence, that Uighurs, an ethnic group in northwest China, were responsible for bringing down the plane. At first, China's state broadcaster even removed the name of the flight's only Uighur passenger, as if to forestall the fury of China's Han ethnic majority.
The Uighur painter and art teacher Maimaitijiang Abula, from China's Westernmost city, Kashgar, was among a delegation of painters and calligraphers who had visited Malaysia. "Maimaitijiang is a very mild, but passionate person, a good teacher. He's so kind to his students and colleagues, he loves Kashgar, and painted a lot of good artworks," said his friend Yimamuaishan Monday. "He likes going out in nature himself, or with his students. He paints whatever's in his mind, he's such a creative artist."
The wife and brother of the missing artist will travel to Malaysia Tuesday. She and other relatives have so far hid the news of the incident from the couple's 10 year-old daughter, said Yimamuaishan.
Contributing: Thomas Maresca in Vietnam; John Bacon in McLean, Va; Associated Press