MANAMA, Bahrain — A mysterious Asian couple took suicide pills today just before being questioned about a South Korean jetliner that disappeared over Burma and may have been bombed.
Officials said the couple boarded Korean Air Lines Flight 858 at Baghdad, Iraq, where it originated Sunday, and got off at Abu Dhabi before the Boeing 707 headed across Asia toward Seoul with 115 people aboard.
It vanished near the Burma-Thailand border, before a scheduled refueling stop in Bangkok. Officials in Seoul said there are strong suspicions that a bomb destroyed the aircraft.
The man, who appeared to be middle-aged, died four hours after biting into a suicide pill concealed in a cigarette, said Takao Natsume, Japan's acting ambassador in Bahrain. He said that the woman, who was younger, was unconscious in critical condition at a military hospital but that "she will survive."
They had been waiting to be questioned by immigration officials who stopped them from boarding a Rome-bound flight. The two were believed to be either Korean or Japanese and were traveling on forged Japanese passports, apparently as father and daughter.
'Bodies Went Very Stiff'
"Just after swallowing the pills they both fell on the floor, and their bodies went very stiff," Natsume said.
Both collapsed "in seconds," but the woman apparently survived because she swallowed less of the poison hidden in the cigarette filters, he said. The type of poison was not known.
Another Japanese Embassy source gave this account: At first only the woman was told that she was being held because her passport was forged and that she would have to return to Japan.
She replied, "Yes."
Asked by the embassy official what he would do, the man said: "It's useless to travel alone. I'll go with her."
Glass Vials in Filters
The woman then produced a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and each took one. Instead of lighting them, they bit into tiny glass vials hidden in the filters.
Japanese and Bahraini officials said the couple flew from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi on Flight 858 and caught a Gulf Air plane to Bahrain while the doomed South Korean plane left for Seoul.
South Korea's government broadcasting service said investigators are checking possible links between the mystery woman and Chosen Soren, an organization of Koreans living in Japan that supports communist North Korea.
An airline official had said a bomb explosion aboard the plane was suspected because no distress call was received from the aircraft. Burmese officials said there was no hint of trouble during the last routine radio contact with the crew.
Thai police still searching for wreckage reported a large swath of leveled trees in mountains along the border today.
Real One in Tokyo
In the passports they carried, the dead man was identified as Shinichi Hachiya, 69, and the woman as Mayumi Hachiya, 27, both from Okayama, Japan.
Natsume said that the man's passport was at first believed to be authentic but that Japanese authorities then found the real Shinichi Hachiya in Tokyo.
Kyodo News Service quoted Hachiya, an employee of a computer company, as saying the dead man might be a Korean resident of Japan named Miyamoto he met 15 years ago on a telephone construction project.
He said he did not see Miyamoto for several years until 1983, when the man called him to discuss working together abroad.
Hachiya said he gave Miyamoto personal documents necessary to obtain a passport, received it Sept. 2, 1983, and still had it. Kyodo said Miyamoto or someone else might have used Hachiya's papers to get a second passport.