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Asia-pacific

Oil slicks spotted in search for lost Malaysia Airlines flight

© AFP

Video by Richelle HARRISON PLESSE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-09

Two large oil slicks spotted in the water off the southern tip of Vietnam on Saturday are believed to be the first signs of a Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing earlier in the day with 239 people on board.

Vietnam said its rescue planes had spotted the two large oil slicks, each about 15 km (9 miles) long, and a column of smoke off its coastline, but it was not clear if they were connected to the missing plane.

Flight MH370, which was bound for Beijing, took off at 12:40am (4:40pm GMT Friday) from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. About an hour after its departure, however, it went missing without a trace. The plane last had contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu.

There were no reports of bad weather and no clear indication why the Boeing 777-200ER vanished from radar screens.

“We are not ruling out any possibilities,” Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told a news conference, raising the possibility of foul play.

More questions were raised over the flight’s disappearance after it emerged that the passenger manifest issued by the airline included the names of two Europeans - Austrian Christian Kozel and Italian Luigi Maraldi - who, according to their foreign ministries, were not in fact on the plane.

US and European security officials were careful to point out, however, that there was no proof of any terrorist link and there could be other explanations for why two passengers were travelling with stolen passports.

Search efforts

A large number of planes and ships from several countries were scouring the area where the plane last made contact, about halfway between Malaysia and the southern tip of Vietnam.

A map showing the plane's journey and the area where contact was lost

“The search and rescue operations will continue as long as necessary,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters. He said his country had deployed 15 air force aircraft, six navy ships and three coast guard vessels.

China and the Philippines also sent ships to the region to help, while the United States, the Philippines and Singapore dispatched military planes. China also put other ships and aircraft on standby.

A crash, if confirmed, would likely mark the 777’s second fatal incident in less than a year, and its deadliest since entering service 19 years ago. An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER crash-landed in San Francisco in July 2013, killing three passengers and injuring more than 180. Boeing said it was monitoring the situation but had no further comment.

No distress call

John Goglia, a former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, the US agency that investigates plane crashes, said the lack of a distress call suggested that the plane either experienced an explosive decompression or was destroyed by an explosive device.

“It had to be quick because there was no communication,” Goglia said. He added that the false identities of the two passengers strongly suggested the possibility of a bomb.

Paul Hayes, director of safety at Flightglobal Ascend aviation consultancy, echoed Goglia’s comments.

“Such a sudden disappearance would suggest either that something is happening so quickly that there is no opportunity to put out a mayday, in which case a deliberate act is one possibility to consider, or that the crew is busy coping with what whatever has taken place,” he told Reuters, saying, however, that it was too early to speculate on the causes.

If there were passengers on board with stolen passports, it was not clear how they passed through security checks.

International police body Interpol maintains a database of more than 39 million travel documents reported lost or stolen by 166 countries, and says on its website that this enables police, immigration or border control officers to check the validity of a suspect document within seconds. No comment was immediately available from the organisation.

Angry relatives

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing that China was “extremely worried” about the fate of the plane and those on board. Chinese passengers’ relatives angrily accused the airline of keeping them in the dark, while state media criticised the carrier’s response as poor.

“There’s no one from the company here, we can’t find a single person. They’ve just shut us in this room and told us to wait,” said one middle-aged man at a hotel near Beijing airport where the relatives were taken.

“We want someone to show their face. They haven’t even given us the passenger list,” he said.

Another relative, trying to evade a throng of reporters, muttered, “They’re treating us worse than dogs.”

The airline said people of 14 nationalities were among the 227 passengers, including at least 152 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines told passengers’ next of kin to come to the international airport with their passports to prepare to fly to the crash site, once it was identified.

About 20-30 families were being kept in a holding room at the airport, where they were being guarded by security officials and kept away from reporters.

Malaysia Airlines has one of the best safety records among full-service Asia-Pacific carriers. It identified the pilot of Flight MH370 as Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old Malaysian who joined the carrier in 1981 and has 18,365 hours of flight experience.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-03-08

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