Byline: Amanda Hodge, Southeast Asia correspondent
An international manhunt is under way for four North Koreans wanted in connection with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korea's leader, who fled Kuala Lumpur within hours of his murder last Monday, Malaysian police said yesterday.
Deputy inspector-general Tan Sri Noor Rashid Ibrahim said the four men - Ri Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Song Hac, 34; O. Jong Gil, 55; and Ri Jae Nam, 57 - were all travelling on North Korean passports.
"We can confirm that the four left the country on the same day of the attack. We are co-operating with Interpol and other relevant bodies in the region," Inspector Noor Rashid told a press conference last night.
He would not say where the men fled to, but confirmed police were also seeking a further three North Korean men to assist in their investigations.
He appealed to Jong-nam's next of kin to come forward and help police with their investigation, adding that the results of toxicology and pathology tests would be finalised "in a few days".
"We are trying very hard to get the next of kin to come and assist us in the investigation. Those very close to him - his brother, sister, son, wife," he said.
South Korean and US intelligence officials have both said they believe Jong-nam's younger half-brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, ordered his assassination.
Malaysian authorities said on Friday that they could not release Kim Jong-nam's body without DNA samples from a close relative, provoking a furious response from North Korea, which had opposed Wednesday's post-mortem examination and asked to take possession of the body. Pyongyang's ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, has accused Malaysia of "colluding" with South Korea to besmirch North Korea, and of violating Jong-nam's human rights by conducting an autopsy without permission.
Authorities have arrested four suspects, including one North Korean national, Ri Jongh Chol, on Friday night, whom Malaysian media reported was a chemist with degrees in medicine and science.
Chol, a 46-year-old Malaysian resident, is said to have graduated from a North Korean university in 2000 and worked in Kolkata, India, before moving to Malaysia in 2011.
Indonesian woman Siti Aisyah, 25, and Doan Thi Hoang, 29, who was travelling on a Vietnamese passport, were arrested last week along with Ms Aisyah's Malaysian boyfriend.
Malaysia's New Straits Times, which ran a macabre picture on the weekend of Jong-nam slumped and dying at an airport medical clinic minutes after he was attacked with a suspected deadly poison, reported four North Korean men had been tracking the 45-year-old's movements for up to a year.
The men were believed to have spent several months grooming Ms Aisyah and Ms Doan for their roles in the attack at Kuala Lumpur international airport.
The newspaper cited airport CCTV footage showing three men watching closely from a nearby airport cafe as the women approach Jong-nam near the self-check-in kiosks at Terminal 2.
One of them stepped in front of him to distract him. The other swabbed his face with a substance from behind. A fourth man trailed Jong-nam through the terminal.
Both women have claimed since that they believed they were participating in a television prank.
Ms Aisyah's family in Indonesia said she had told them she was shooting prank-style videos with a Japanese producer, including one in Jakarta last month.
"She said they would do things like put chilli sauce on someone's hand, or just touch someone's cheeks while riding an escalator," Mala, Ms Aisyah's sister-in-law, told The Wall Street Journal.
She said Ms Aisyah believed she was being filmed by hidden cameras in pranks carried out in Malaysia and Indonesia, but confessed she had not seen any of the videos. Relatives at her childhood home in a small town a few hours from Jakarta said Ms Aisyah had occasionally mentioned the filming, but was short on details.
"I don't know much about it," her mother, Benah, said. "Does it mean she's doing something like what actresses do?" She said her daughter spoke some Korean and English, but would not comment on reports she had worked as a KL nightclub hostess. She had been due to return to Indonesia for a wedding late last week.Indonesian officials believe she was likely set up by people plotting against Jong-nam and have engaged private lawyers to defend her.