The announcement is likely to dampen, at least for now, speculation that the disappearance of the Boeing 777 was linked to terrorism.
"Southeast Asia is one of the largest marketplaces for counterfeit documents in the world. And it is one of the largest places illegal immigration runs through," says Steve Mac Martin, Director of Medaille College's Homeland Security program, adding that the stolen documents don't automatically tip the scales toward a terrorist attack.
"Basically I think there are three scenarios they have to look at. One: some sort of catastrophic or mechanical filure that caused the airplane to crash. Two: a bombing, and Three: a hjacking that - you don't know yet, but would have to assume was successful because they haven't found the plane, " MacMartin says.
What They Know So Far....:
- The Boeing 777 carrying 239 people lost contact over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam; there was no sign of trouble before it disappeared early Saturday, and no distress signal was sent.
- At least 34 aircraft and 40 ships from several countries are searching a 50-nautical mile radius from the point the plane vanished, but the only finds have been false alarms - a yellow object spotted by a search plane turned out to be trash, and oil slicks were shown to not be from an aircraft.
- Police and Interpol questioned the proprietors of a travel agency in Thailand that sold one-way tickets to two men who traveled on stolen passports.
What is not yet known:
- What happened to cause the plane to lose contact. Catastrophic failure of the engines or plane structure, extreme turbulence or pilot error or even suicide, are possible, though the use of the stolen passports has strengthened speculation of foul play.
- Without debris, there's no confirmation that the plane crashed. But finding traces of an aircraft lost at sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort.
- It's not known if the two men using stolen passports had anything to do with the plane's disappearance.
Interpol secretary general Ronald K. Noble said Tuesday the two men traveled to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then apparently switched to the stolen Austrian and Italian documents.
Noble said the recent information about the men made terrorism a less likely cause of the plane's disappearance, but that did not allay concerns about the ease of travel involving stolen passports.
He identified the men as Pouri Nourmohammadi, 19,, (pictured above on police handout) and Delavar Seyedmohammaderza, 29. The 19-year-old is believed to have planned to seek asylum in Germany.
News that two of the passengers were traveling with stolen passports immediately fueled speculation of foul play. However, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference Tuesday that is less likely to be the case, now that they have identified at least one of the passengers with the stolen passport..
"We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group," Khalid said.
He said the young man's mother was waiting for him in Frankfurt and had been in contact with police. He said she contacted Malaysian authorities to inform them of her concern when her son didn't get in touch with her.
He also said there was no truth to a statement by at least one other government official that five passengers had checked in for the flight but never boarded the airplane.
On The WBEN Liveline:
CBS's Shannon Van Sant in Tokyo | CBS's Barnaby Lo in Ho Chi Minh City | Ret'd. FBI Agent Michael Liwicki
No debris from the plane has been found. On Tuesday, baffled authorities expanded their search to the opposite side of Malaysia from where it disappeared more than three days ago with 239 people on board.
The airline says the pilots did not send any distress signals, suggesting a sudden and possibly catastrophic incident. Speculation has ranged widely about possible causes, including pilot error, plane malfunction, hijacking and terrorism.
The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, on the western coast of Malaysia, early Saturday en route to Beijing. It flew across Malaysia into the Gulf of Thailand at 35,000 feet (11,000 meters) and then disappeared from radar screens.
Authorities have said the plane may have attempted to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur.
The hunt began on Saturday near the plane's last known location. But with no debris found there, the search has been systematically expanded to include areas the plane could have reached with the fuel it had on board. That is a vast area in which to locate something as small as a piece of an aircraft.
Malaysia Airlines said search and rescue teams have expanded the scope beyond the flight path to the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia's western coast and Indonesia's Sumatra island - the opposite side of Malaysia from its last known location.
An earlier statement said the western coast of Malaysia was "now the focus," but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight.
"The search is on both sides," Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.
The search currently includes nine aircraft and 24 ships from nine countries that have been scouring the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of Malaysia. Land areas also are being searched.
Pictured at Right: Relatives of Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 watch a TV news program about the missing flight as they wait for official updates from Malaysia Airlines at a hotel ballroom in Beijing,
China, where two-thirds of the passengers are from, urged Malaysian authorities on Tuesday to "speed up the efforts" to find the plane. It has sent four ships, with another four on the way.
A shopping mall in Beijing suspended advertising on its large outdoor LED screen to display a search timer - an image of an airplane along with a digital clock marking the time since contact with the flight was lost.
Assuming the plane crashed into the ocean or disintegrated in midair, there will likely still be debris floating in the ocean, but it may be widely spread out, and much may have already sunk. In past disasters, it has taken days or longer to find wreckage.
The United States has sent two navy ships, at least one of which is equipped with helicopters (left), and a Navy P-3C Orion plane with sensors that can detect small debris in the water. It said in a statement that the Malaysian government has done "tremendous job" organizing the land and sea search effort.
Vietnamese planes and ships are also taking part.
Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese People's Army, said authorities on land had also been ordered to search for the plane, which could have crashed into mountains or uninhabited jungle. He said military units near the border with Laos and Cambodia had been instructed to search their regions also.
"So far we have found no signs ... so we must widen our search," he said.