DUBAI // Ten passengers on the ill-fated Air India Express flight from Dubai were using fraudulent passports, it was revealed last night. Police in Mangalore in southern India, where the plane crashed last Saturday killing 158 passengers and crew, have now launched an investigation into every travel document used on the flight.
India's ambassador to the UAE, MK Lokesh, said 10 passports had been "tampered with". Irregularities included false addresses and photos that did not match the user. The investigation was initiated when a Dubai resident registered a complaint with the Indian consulate after his passport number and other personal details, including his address, were listed as belonging to one of the crash victims. Shanavas Mammed Koya, 27, said: "It is not a small issue. I had to lodge the complaint to make my side clear. I still do not know how this will affect me and my family."
Mr Koya said he raised the alarm when relatives and friends began calling to ask about him. "All my friends here got calls from my relatives in India worried that I had died. Fortunately, I had spoken to my wife in the morning, before the news of the crash emerged, so she knew I was all right," he said. He said he checked with Air India Express and the travel agency that booked tickets for the crash victim using his passport number, identified as Abdul Samad. The agency said there might have been a clerical error and the airline insisted that no one else had travelled on his passport number.
Gopal Hosur, the inspector general of Western Ring police based in Mangalore, said: "We are trying to acquire the passport numbers from Air India's flight manifest. The details of the passports are what the investigation will be based upon. We are going to look into the genuineness of each and every passport. "The investigation will seek to find out the racket behind forged and fake passports. We are looking into two towns in particular, Kasargod and Kannur."
Cases of forged passports have been reported before from the Kasargod district of Kerala, a problem that Indian immigration authorities have been looking into closely. Valayar Ravi, the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, who is on an official visit to the UAE, said passport fraud was a serious issue that had been encountered before in the region. "We have seen cases of people pasting their pictures in other's passports. This is something that the Kerala government must to look into in detail," he said.
UAE authorities expressed doubt that forged documents had been used to board the aircraft. "We request the Indian authorities to provide us with the passport to conduct forensic tests to determine if it was forged," said Major General Mohammed al Merri, head of Dubai General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs. About a dozen people who died in the crash have not yet been identified. Officials warned that the process would be difficult because of the condition of the remains.
"Because of the charred bodies, identification has been difficult. There have been cases where someone has claimed a body that is not theirs, but that is not because of the passports," Mr Hosur said. "We are doing DNA analysis on the bodies to determine the right families." That, combined with the allegations of passport fraud, have further complicated compensation claims for the families of those killed in the crash.
"This is not good news for the families. This will no doubt complicate the compensation claims," said Sanjay Verma, the consul general of India. In July 2008, a former Indian ambassador to the UAE urged the state of Kerala to address the "casual approach" towards citizens who used fraudulent passports to travel to the Gulf. At the time, Talmiz Ahmed called for stricter laws by the state government.
The Air India incident comes as UAE officials try to tighten passport checks at borders, saying forged documents present a wide-ranging security problem for the country. Concern has grown since fake passports were used by the suspected Mossad hit squad who assassinated the Hamas official Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai in January. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com * With additional reporting from Awad Mustafa