PHUKET: An international investigation into the disappearance of a MAS flight with 239 people on board is swinging to Phuket following concerns that two of the passengers were travelling on passports stolen on the Thai holiday island.
Phuket is renowned as a popular international destination where hundreds of passports are ''lost'' each year. The possibility exists that some of these documents fall into the hands of terrorists.
The two passports in the hands of the wrong people on lost flight MH370 belonged to Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel.
Both men reported their passports lost or stolen on Phuket, one in August last year and the other some months earlier.
Envoys from Europe and Australia have complained often to the administrators on Phuket that passports were important security documents and should not be used as collateral for hiring cars and motorcycles.
It's still common for passports to be left with rental dealers on Phuket despite the repeated warnings to officials and police on the island.
Mr Maraldi reported that his passport was stolen from a Phuket car rental company on August 1 last year.
Media reports say the Italian honorary consul on Phuket, Francesco Pensato, confirmed 37-year-old Mr Maraldi is on Phuket.
Italian authorities are checking whether the man on the plane may have been a different man with the same name and date of birth.
Italy's foreign ministry confirmed the case of mistaken identity. ''We've spoken to Maraldi and he is alive and well,'' a foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted.
With its underbelly of soft crimes that often seem of little consequence to local police, who are happier to report items ''lost'' rather than ''stolen,'' Phuket makes a perfect place for an illicit trade in passports.
Former Australian honorary consul Larry Cunningham, who retired from his Phuket posting in September and has yet to be replaced, said today: ''In my time as consul passport thefts did occur. You could even say it was a regular occurrence.
''Some passports were certainly lost, falling out of pockets or being genuinely misplaced. But there were also substantial incidents of passports being stolen.''
Mr Cunningham said he recalled being told at a conference in Hanoi once that when thieves broke into rooms at resorts, ''they will often take passports first because they can be sold on the black market.''
The Italian embassy in Bangkok told one reporter that Luigi Maraldi is an Italian national living in Phuket who was recently given a new passport but did not get on the flight.
On Facebook, Mr Maraldi said: ''Now I have learned that the plane disappeared in Malaysia, there was an Italian named Luigi Maraldi. In telling you that is not me, I want to express my closeness to my family.''
Mr Maraldi telephoned his parents in Italy to explain that he was not on board the missing aircraft.
Stolen and fake passports are in international demand for all kinds of reasons. Six men from Syria were still being held at Phuket International Airport last week after being arrested for carrying fake Greek passports in Beijing.
The men were aiming to find sanctuary in Stockholm from the civil war but were detected when authorities checked their documents while in transit in Beijing.
The six - four Syrians and two Lebanese - were returned to Phuket, their point of embarkation, without the passports. They were being held in the ''Hospitality'' section at Phuket airport while the UN refugee arm - UNHCR - searched for another country prepared to take the men.
last spoke to the men on February 27, they had been held at the airport for 43 days.
One of the men, a 20-year-old university student, said that the group chose to try to flee to Stockholm via Phuket and Beijing because others before them had succeeded in reaching Sweden.
Levels of international crime on Phuket are believed to be almost too large to manage.
In September last year, a raid led by US authorities on a Phuket villa captured Joseph Hunter and his international gang of hit-men and drug dealers in a story that officials say comes ''straight from the pages of Tom Clancy.'' The gang was extradited to the US.
Two large oil slicks have been spotted off the southern tip of Vietnam by the Vietnamese Air Force aircraft searching for the downed Boeing 777.