The two mystery passengers who triggered an international terrorism probe into a missing Malaysian jet now appear to be young Iranian migrants seeking a new life overseas, officials said Tuesday.
The case of the pair, who travelled with stolen passports, has focused attention on the murky world of people smuggling, particularly through Southeast Asia, which has long been renowned as a hub of illegal migration and human trafficking.
Interpol said Tuesday the two men were believed to have travelled to Kuala Lumpur via Doha using Iranian passports -- not reported stolen -- under the names of Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, aged 29, and Pouria Nourmohammadi, 18.
They then switched to stolen Austrian and Italian passports to board Beijing-bound flight MH370, which vanished Saturday with 239 people on board.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said it appeared increasingly certain "these two individuals were probably not terrorists".
"The interest seems to be dying down because they might just be people who were being smuggled or trafficked," he told a news conference in France.
"And from Interpol's perspective the fear or the concern we should all have is that more than a billion times each year there are people that either cross borders or board planes without having passports screened against Interpol's database," he added.
Thai police said a suspected Iranian people smuggler had booked the tickets for the two men on flight MH370 through travel agencies in Pattaya, a seedy seaside city renowned for its flourishing sex industry.
The man, named as "Mr Ali", reserved the seats under the names of two Europeans whose passports were stolen in the kingdom.
"We believe that these two passports were stolen by a human smuggling gang who send people to work in third countries, especially European countries," Police Lieutenant General Panya Maman, commander of southern region police, told AFP.
He said "Mr Ali" was believed to live in Malaysia and has links to a gang that specialises in smuggling Middle Eastern people to Europe via third countries. The ring has connections in Pattaya and the Thai resort island of Phuket.
He estimated that 2,000 passports were lost or stolen in Thailand each year.
Iran offered its assistance with the Malaysian investigation into two of its nationals.
"We are offering our cooperation to obtain more information," foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, pledging that Tehran would provide "any information on the Iranians and their status as soon as it is available".
Local rights groups said they were seeing a rise in the number of migrants fleeing the Islamic republic.
"Over the past few years actually there has been an increase in the numbers of people who have been leaving Iran and coming here," said Sharuna Verghis, director of Malaysia-based refugee support group Health Equity Initiative.
Some of them are trying to escape persecution after changing their religion, or because they faced gender-based discrimination, she said.
- Tourists targeted -
"Mr Ali" made the bookings by phone through Pattaya-based Grand Horizon Travel on March 1, asking for the two cheapest tickets to Europe, Pattaya police chief Colonel Supachai Phuykaeokam told AFP.
A few days later, Grand Horizon -- a sub-agent -- asked another travel agency, Six Star, to issue e-tickets at his request.
A friend of Ali's paid for the tickets in cash at the office of Grand Horizon in Pattaya, Supachai said.
Both agencies declined to comment when contacted by AFP.
The flights were booked under the names of Luigi Maraldi, an Italian, and Austrian Christian Kozel -- but neither European ever boarded the Malaysia Airlines plane which vanished without a trace over the South China Sea early Saturday.
The flight booked in Kozel's name was from Kuala Lumpur to Frankfurt via Beijing and Amsterdam, while the final destination for the Maraldi ticket was Copenhagen.
Both Maraldi and Kozel had their passports stolen in Thailand in the past two years.
Travel documents seen by AFP confirm that the one-way tickets were issued in Pattaya on March 6 and cost 20,215 baht ($625) each.
Maraldi has said his passport was stolen when he rented a motorbike in Phuket in July 2013.
He told police he left the passport with a Thai woman looking after the shop, but when he returned she had given it to somebody else.
Kozel also reported his passport missing in Phuket, on March 14, 2012, according to police.
According to one diplomatic source in Bangkok, tourists often lose their passports after leaving them as deposits for rental scooters.