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Asia-pacific

Direction of missing plane unknown, Malaysian authorities admit

© Image: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-12

More than four days after Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 went missing en route to Beijing, authorities acknowledged on Wednesday that they didn’t know in which direction the plane carrying 239 passengers was heading when it disappeared.

Malaysia’s civil aviation authorities and the military both admitted on Wednesday that the plane may have turned back from its original route towards Vietnam, possibly as far as the Strait of Malacca on the eastern side of the country, leading the search for the jet to swing northwest towards the Andaman Sea, far from its intended flight path.

How it might have done this without being clearly detected remains a mystery, raising questions over whether its electrical systems were either knocked out or turned off.

No trace of the plane has been found since it vanished on Saturday, and contradictory and incomplete information from Malaysian authorities has infuriated relatives enduring an unbearable wait for news of their loved ones.

The change of tack on Wednesday exposed Malaysia to mounting criticism that its response was in disarray.

Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage or terrorism in the disappearance of the plane.

The Boeing 777 is a modern aircraft which has an excellent safety record, as does Malaysia Airlines.

Authorities began their search for the missing aircraft at its last reported position over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. But they have also said search operations were ongoing in the Strait of Malacca, west of Malaysia

Mixed messages

Scores of planes and aircraft have been scouring both locations since the plane disappeared on Saturday morning.

Malaysia’s air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, released a statement on Wednesday denying remarks attributed to him in a local media report saying that military radar had managed to track the aircraft turning back from its original course, crossing the country and making it to the Strait of Malacca. AP contacted a high-level military official who confirmed the remarks.

Rodzali referred to a statement he said he made March 9 in which he said the air force has “not ruled out the possibility of an air turn back” and said search and rescue efforts had been expanded to the waters around Penang Island, in the northern section of the strait.

It is possible that the radar readings are not definitive or subject to interpretation, especially if a plane is malfunctioning.

The country’s civilian aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said he could neither confirm nor deny the military’s remarks. That suggests disagreement or confusion at the highest level over where the plane is most likely to have ended up.

“There is a possibility of an air turn back. We are still investigating and looking at the radar readings,” he said on Wednesday.

The strait is a busy shipping lane that separates Malaysia from Indonesia’s Sumatra Island.

Criminal aspects

Adding to the confusion, Indonesia Air Force Colonel Umar Fathur said the country had received official information from Malaysian authorities that the plane was above the South China Sea, about 10 nautical miles from Kota Bharu, Malaysia, when it turned back towards the strait and then disappeared. That would place its last confirmed position closer to Malaysia than has previously been publicly disclosed.

Fathur said Malaysian authorities have determined four blocks to be searched in the strait, with assistance from Indonesia. Vietnamese military authorities said they were searching for the plane on both land and sea.

Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese People’s Army, said there were 22 aircraft and 31 ships from Vietnam and other countries involved in the hunt in its area of responsibility.

Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. on Saturday, bound for Beijing. Authorities initially said its last contact with ground controllers was less than an hour into the flight at a height of 35,000 feet, when the plane was somewhere between the east coast of Malaysia and southern Vietnam.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar, who has been ordered to look at possible criminal aspects in the disappearance of Flight MH370, said hijacking, sabotage and issues related to the pilots’ psychological health were being considered.

An Australian TV station reported that the first officer on the missing plane, Fariq Abdul Hamid, had invited two women into the cockpit during a flight two years ago. One of the women, Jonti Roos, described the encounter on Australia’s “A Current Affair”.

Roos said she and a friend were allowed to stay in the cockpit during the entire one-hour flight on December 14, 2011, from Phuket, Thailand, to Kuala Lumpur. She said the arrangement did not seem unusual to the plane’s crew.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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

Date created : 2014-03-12

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