Chinese police are questioning a man who claims his company had hired two "foreign dancers" whose names are identical to those on the stolen passports used by two Iranians to board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
Xie Zhuoling said his foreign performers' agency in Yinchuan, in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, offered a short-term contract to Italian Maraldi Luigi and Austrian Kozel Christian last June to fly them from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early this year.
Xie said the pair were hired without his knowledge to perform for an unknown third party in Beijing between February 15 and May 14.
Malaysian authorities earlier confirmed that two Iranians using European passports stolen in Thailand were on the missing flight. The passports belonged to Luigi Maraldi and Christian Kozel - identical to the names cited by Xie but with the surnames appearing last, in the Western style. Maraldi's passport was reported stolen on July 22 last year, while Kozel lost his in 2012.
Malaysian investigators said later that the two Iranians were most likely just illegal immigrants, passing through Beijing to Frankfurt and Copenhagen respectively. They were not linked to any known terrorist group.
Xie, who made the claim and posted alleged photos of the contracts online, said in a telephone interview that they were prepared and signed by his legal representative Lei Xiaofang, who "mysteriously disappeared".
His story could not be independently verified and it contained conflicting information. But the online post has attracted 620,000 views since last Friday.
Yinchuan police confirmed that they questioned Xie on Monday and took the alleged documents for investigation.
"We are investigating the contracts and cannot comment before we can conclude if they are authentic or not," an officer said.
But he dismissed Xie's account of Lei's mysterious disappearance, saying: "We believe they were a couple and fell out after financial disputes."
Xie later admitted that he had been in a relationship with Lei but insisted his story was true. "I just want to provide clues to the aircraft investigation," he said.