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Asia-pacific

New US lead shifts Malaysia jet search to Indian Ocean

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-14

The hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 spread to the vast Indian Ocean Friday after the White House cited "new information" suggesting that the plane might have flown for hours after vanishing from radar screens nearly seven days ago.

Multiple US media reports, citing US officials, said the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777's communication system continued to "ping" a satellite for a number of hours after it disappeared off radar with 239 people aboard, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"It's my understanding that based on some new information that's not necessarily conclusive, but new information, an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

Carney did not specify the nature of the new information, but Malaysian officials have since confirmed that the search for Flight MH370 had been expanded to the Indian Ocean.

Expanding the search area to the Indian Ocean would be consistent with the theory that the Boeing 777 may have detoured to the west about an hour after take-off from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.

The disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane is one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation. There has been no trace of the plane nor any sign of wreckage despite a search by the navies and military aircraft of more than a dozen countries across Southeast Asia.

Pings reveal little

The “pings” revealed on Thursday indicated its maintenance troubleshooting systems were switched on and ready to communicate with satellites, showing the aircraft was at least capable of communicating after losing touch with air traffic controllers.

The system transmits such pings about once an hour, according to the sources, who said five or six were heard.

However, the pings alone are not proof that the plane was in the air or on the ground, the sources said.

Malaysian authorities have said the last civilian contact occurred as the Boeing 777-200ER flew north into the Gulf of Thailand. They said military radar sightings indicated it may have turned sharply to the west and crossed the Malay Peninsula toward the Andaman Sea.

The new information sheds little light on the mystery of what happened to the plane, whether it was a technical failure, a hijacking or another kind of incident on board.

While the troubleshooting systems were functioning, no data links were opened, the sources said, because the companies involved had not subscribed to that level of service from the satellite operator, the sources said.

Earlier Malaysian officials denied reports that the aircraft had continued to send technical data and said there was no evidence that it flew for hours after losing contact with air traffic controllers early last Saturday.

“It’s extraordinary that with all the technology that we’ve got that an aircraft can disappear like this,” Tony Tyler, the head of the International Air Transport Association that links over 90 percent of the world’s airlines, told reporters in London.

Intruder speculation

ABC news said US investigators now believe the aircraft's data reporting system and its transponder – which reports its position in flight to ground-based radar – shut down separately.

The fact that the devices appear to have been shut off at a 14-minute interval from one another suggests that they may have been deliberately disabled or at any rate did not fail as a result of a catastrophic airframe incident, the US network said.

The transponder was switched off 30 minutes after the final voice communication from the cockpit, around the same time that Malaysia believes the plane may have inexplicably started to turn back, the Washington Post said.

Taken together, that "suggests that someone unauthorised took control of that airplane, like an intruder or one of the pilots," the Post quoted one US flight crash expert as saying.

The plane lost radar contact at around 1:30 a.m., less than an hour after take-off, according to Malaysian officials.

They have confirmed that the last words heard from the cockpit were a relaxed "Alright, good night" as the plane was due to pass from Malaysian to Vietnamese air traffic control. The night was clear and the weather was fine.

Military search widens

Ships and aircraft are now combing a vast area that had already been widened to cover both sides of the Malay Peninsula and the Andaman Sea.

The US Navy was sending an advanced P-8A Poseidon plane to help search the Strait of Malacca, separating the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It had already deployed a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft to those waters.

US defence officials told Reuters that the US Navy guided-missile destroyer, USS Kidd, was heading to the Strait of Malacca, answering a request from the Malaysian government. The Kidd had been searching the areas south of the Gulf of Thailand, along with the destroyer USS Pinckney.

India’s Defence Ministry has ordered the deployment of ships, aircraft and helicopters from the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. An Indian P8I Poseidon surveillance plane was sent to the Andaman Islands on Thursday.

China, which had more than 150 citizens on board the missing plane, has deployed four warships, four coastguard vessels, eight aircraft and trained 10 satellites on a wide search area.

Chinese media have described the ship deployment as the largest Chinese rescue fleet ever assembled.

Contradictory reports

On the sixth day of the search, planes scanned an area of sea where Chinese satellite images had shown what could be debris but found no sign of the airliner.

Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference the images were provided accidentally, saying the Chinese government neither authorised nor endorsed putting them on a website. “The image is not confirmed to be connected to the plane,” he said.

It was the latest in a series of contradictory reports, adding to the confusion and agony of the relatives of the missing passengers.

As frustration mounted over the failure to find any trace of the plane, China heaped pressure on Malaysia to improve coordination in the search.

Premier Li Keqiang, speaking at a news conference in Beijing, demanded that the “relevant party” step up coordination while China’s civil aviation chief said he wanted a “smoother” flow of information from Malaysia, which has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the disaster.

Malaysian police have said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might shed light on the mystery, along with the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage or mechanical failure.

The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall with its undercarriage on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-03-14

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