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Scant evidence of attack on lost Malaysia Airlines flight

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-11

Malaysian authorities said Tuesday that the evidence so far does not indicate that a missing airliner was downed in an attack, citing mechanical problems or pilot error as other possible causes of the apparent crash.

The fate of the Malaysian airliner that vanished about an hour into its journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing remained a mystery as a massive air and sea search, now in its fourth day, failed to reveal any trace of the Boeing 777 plane.

Neither Malaysia’s Special Branch, the agency leading the investigation locally, nor intelligence agencies in the United States and Europe have ruled out the possibility that militants may have been involved in downing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

But both Malaysian authorities and Western security sources have indicated that the evidence so far does not strongly back an attack as the cause of the aircraft’s disappearance, and that mechanical or pilot problems could also have led to the apparent crash.

“There is no evidence to suggest an act of terror,” said a European security source, adding that there was also “no explanation what’s happened to it or where it is” in an interview with Reuters.

One US source said Malaysian authorities were leaning away from the theory that the plane was attacked mainly because the electronic evidence indicates that the flight turned back towards the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur before disappearing.

Dozens of ships and aircraft from 10 countries continue to scour the land and seas around Malaysia and south of Vietnam for signs of what happpened to the Boeing 777-200ER after it climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet (10,670 metres).

‘Suspect’ passports

At a press conference on Tuesday, Interpol released an image of two Iranian nationals who are suspected of boarding the airliner with stolen passports.

Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said the two men travelled to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then apparently switched to using the stolen Austrian and Italian documents. He identified the men as Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, and 19-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, who is believed to have been planning to seek asylum.

Noble emphasised that neither man is suspected of having any terror links.

© Interpol image

An Interpol spokeswoman earlier said that a check of all documents used to board the plane had revealed more “suspect passports” that were being investigated. Southeast Asia is known as a hub for false documents that are used by smugglers, illegal migrants and those seeking asylum.

“It is not uncommon for people to travel on stolen passports, as there is such a huge market,” FRANCE 24’s Ismail Wolff reported from Bangkok. “So [that detail] is not necessarily linked – there is no other evidence to suggest that there was any kind of hijacking or attempt to destroy the plane.”

Nonetheless, Wolff added, the fate of Flight MH370 remained “an unprecedented mystery”.

No distress signal

One reason was that the aircraft had failed to make automatic contact with a flight data-monitoring system after vanishing from radar screens, two people familiar with the matter said on Monday. Such contact could have helped investigators determine what happened.

The aircraft was equipped with a maintenance computer capable of talking to the ground automatically through short messages known as ACARS. “There were no signals from ACARS from the time the aircraft disappeared,” a source involved in the investigations told Reuters.

Also raising doubts about the possibility of an attack, the United States extensively reviewed imagery taken by spy satellites for evidence of a mid-air explosion, but saw none, a US government source said. The source described US satellite coverage of the region as thorough.

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

With no success so far, authorities were planning to widen the search from Tuesday, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the head of Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters on Monday.

“Unfortunately we have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,” he said. “As far as we are concerned, we have to find the aircraft. We have to find a piece of the aircraft if possible.” Azharuddin said a hijacking attempt could not be ruled out as investigators explore all theories.

About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew now presumed to have died aboard the plane were Chinese. The airline said other nationalities included 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.

No clear evidence of foul play

A senior source involved in preliminary investigations in Malaysia said the failure to find any debris indicated the plane may have broken up mid-flight, which could disperse smaller bits of wreckage over a very wide area.

“The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,” the source told Reuters.

Asked about the possibility of an explosion, the source said there was no evidence of foul play and that the aircraft could have broken up due to mechanical causes.

Still, the source said the closest parallels were the bomb explosions on board an Air India jetliner in 1985 when it was over the Atlantic Ocean and a Pan Am aircraft over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Both planes were cruising at around 31,000 feet at the time.

Underlining the lack of hard information about the Malaysian plane’s fate, a US Navy P-3 aircraft capable of covering 1,500 square miles (3,900 square km) every hour was sweeping the northern part of the Strait of Malacca, on the other side of the Malaysian peninsula from where the last contact with MH370 was made.

Boeing joins investigation

Boeing joined an official US team investigating the disappearance on Monday, acting as technical advisor to the US National Transportation Safety Board team already in Southeast Asia.

The Boeing 777 is a model which, up to now, has seen only one fatal crash.

The popular family of long-range, wide-body, twin-engined planes have a solid safety record and have been among the world's most widely flown passenger jets since first entering service in 1995.

In the sole fatal crash involving the planes, a Boeing 777-200 operated by South Korea's Asiana Airlines skidded off the runway upon landing at San Francisco's international airport in July 2013, killing three people.

Boeing said in a statement that it "continues to offer its thoughts and deepest concern to the families of those aboard Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which went missing on March 8".

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP, AP)

Date created : 2014-03-11

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