Stolen passports from as many as three nations that qualify for Beijing's 72-hour, visa-free travel policy may have allowed the unidentified passengers to board missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, avoiding the scrutiny to which their identities and documents would have received during a normal China visa application.

The stolen foreign passports, originating from Austria and Italy, respectively (and perhaps two more, one from Russia and another from China), are all qualifying nations from a list of 45 countries permitted to visit or transit Beijing without applying for a visa. The process also simplifies visits for business people making only short trips to the capital. The passengers using the Austrian and Italian passports were booked on onward flights to Amsterdam aboard Dutch airline KLM, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Visitors are required to have confirmed air tickets and if necessary, onward visas, to third countries, making the policy more like a transit visa. Visitors are not permitted to go beyond the Beijing municipality during their stay, but it is unlikely that a traveler motivated to go farther would be discovered at provincial road border crossings into or out of Beijing. The time limit would certainly restrict distance, since air travel and probably rail travel would not be possible without the visa-free entrance being noticed. Those using the program must also depart from Beijing. Participants must register their arrival with the Public Security Bureau, like all foreign visitors.

Launched on January 1, 2013, the program was designed to spur tourism, but underperformed in 2013, attracting only 14,000 of a target 20,000 visitors. According to the English website of Beijing Capital International Airport, the following nations are eligible for the visa waiver program: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia , Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar.

As of 11:30pm Beijing time on Sunday, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 remained listed as missing, with 239 passengers and crew aboard. Bound for Beijing, the flight left Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia at 12:40am Friday, and disappeared from radar about two hours later. It was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30am. On Sunday, reports of debris were reported by navy ships from Vietnam, but could not be confirmed as being from the missing aircraft.


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