PHUKET: The woman who gave Luigi Maraldi's Italian passport to a stranger today told police what happened as mystery deepened over the fate of Flight MH370 and 239 on board.
Benjawan Narkmaraka runs B.N. Massage in Patong, where renting motorcycles to tourists is a sideline, as it is for so many small businesses all over the Thai holiday island of Phuket.
Local police from the regional west coast station in Patong went to the massage shop this afternoon in the wake of international concern at the ease with which passports can be stolen and sold on Phuket.
Two people using passports that weren't their own appear to have died on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight using the identities of Mr Maraldi, 37, and Austrian Christian Zobel, 30.
Both passports were stolen on Phuket where, despite repeated warnings about the illegal practice, passports are still deposited as guarantees by virtually every tourist who rents a motorcycle or car on Phuket.
Mr Maraldi, by coincidence holidaying on Phuket again after his passport disappeared on a holiday last year, gave a bizarre account to the media at Phuket police headquarters yesterday.
The woman who ran the motorcycle hire shop told Mr Maraldi on July 22 last year that she had given his passport to an Italian man who ''said Mr Maraldi was his husband.''
Today Khun Benjawan's recollection was different. ''Luigi was a regular customer,'' she said. ''One day, when a relative was looking after the shop, a Russian man came and said he needed the passport back so his friend Luigi could make a cash exchange.
''The Russian man said he was prepared to leave the passport of Luigi's Russian girlfriend as a swap for Luigi's passport.''
So Mr Maraldi's passport was swapped for the Russian woman's passport, Khun Benjawan said. When Mr Maraldi returned looking for his passport, he was told ''Your girlfriend has been to the shop.''
But the Russian woman who owned the passport had reported it stolen to Patong police just one day earlier.
An international outcry is expected over the use of passports as guarantees in motorcycle and car hire trades because ambassadors and local honorary consuls have been warning Phuket's governor and others of the potential dangers for months.
According to sources in Patong, some tourists actually hand over expired passports or in the case of Russians, internal identity documents so they can steal new hire motorcycles and sell them quickly without detection.
Jet-ski hirers also take passports as collateral, even though it's illegal. Like most of the suspect practices that tourists complain about frequently on Phuket, authorities show enthusiasm for enforcing the law for a few minutes before everything goes back just the way it was.
A ''crackdown'' on renters taking passports as guarantees can be expected any day now.