Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak says the movements of a missing plane were consistent with a deliberate act by someone who turned the jet back across Malaysia and onwards to the west. Sarah Toms reports.
Distraught families of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane ask whether they could have been given information earlier after watch a briefing by the Malaysian prime minister from a Beijing hotel. Sarah Toms reports.
A Malaysian government official says investigators have concluded that Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, with 239 people on board, was hijacked.
AN EXCRUCIATING week after the mysterious flight MH370 went missing, Malaysia’s Prime Minister has confirmed “deliberate actions” are behind its disappearance.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has also revealed that the last communication with the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 — which was carrying 239 passengers — was at 8.11am last Saturday, seven hours later than originally thought.
Authorities are now searching in two separate corridors, including one in the Indian Ocean off the Western Australian coast.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, with 239 passengers and crew on board, vanished on March 8 over waters between Malaysia and southern Vietnam. The night was clear and no distress signal was received.
Mr Razak said he had been briefed yesterday morning on new information that “shed further light on what happened to MH370”.
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“Based on new satellite communication we can see, with a high degree of certainty, that the aircraft communications addressing reporting systems for data was disabled just before the aircraft reached the east coast of the peninsular of Malaysia,” he said last night.
“Shortly afterwards, near the border between Malaysia and Vietnamese air traffic control, the aircraft’s transponder was switched off.
“From this point onwards the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radar data showed that an aircraft, which was believed but not confirmed to be MH370, did indeed turn back.”
The passenger jet then flew in a westerly direction back over Malaysia peninsular before turning north west.
“Up until the point at which it left military primary radar coverage these movements are consistent with deliberate actions by someone on the plane,” Mr Razak said.
“Based on raw satellite data, which was obtained by the satellite data service provider, we can confirm that the aircraft shown in the primary radar data was flight MH370.
“According to the new data the last confirmed communication between the plane and a satellite was at 8.11am Malaysian time on Saturday March 8.”
It is not yet known how much further the aircraft travelled after that last point of contact.
Mr Razak said it the plane’s precise location remained unclear but had been narrowed down to two areas — a northern corridor stretching approximately from border of Kazakhstan and Turkestan into northern Thailand and a southern corridor stretching approximately from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
The search and rescue operation will now shift from the South China Sea to these two areas as the search for MH370 enters a new phase.
In light of this incredible new information, authorities are continuing to investigate the crew and passengers on board.
There were reports late yesterday police had gone again to the home of the pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Shah lived in a gated community in the town of Shah Alam, outside of Kuala Lumpur.
“Despite media reports that the plane was hijacked I wish to be very clear we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path,” Mr Razak said.
“This new satellite information has serious impacts on the nature and scope of the operation.”
The Malaysian PM’s comments did little to ease the nerves of Chinese relatives of the passengers. The flight’s 153 Chinese passengers comprised nearly two-thirds of the 239 on board and some of their relatives, after watching Mr Razak’s televised address, accused the Malaysian’s of foul play.
“I feel (Malaysia Airlines) had a role to play in this incident,” Wen Wancheng, from east China’s Shandong province whose son is among the missing passengers, told reporters.
He expressed scepticism at the latest update regarding the time of the plane’s final communication, calling its disappearance “a conspiracy … from the beginning”.
China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, continued to press Malaysia for more details, with spokesman Qin Gang calling in a statement for “thorough and exact information”.
The official Xinhua news agency, which earlier this week emphasised China’s “right of access to the latest information” from Malaysian authorities, ratcheted up its criticism in a Saturday night commentary suggesting either a “dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information” was to blame.
The Chinese reaction comes after an unnamed Malaysian government official yesterday said there was “conclusive” evidence that the flight had been hijacked and forced to fly offcourse under the cloak of communication darkness.
A source said investigators have concluded that one or more people with significant flying experience hijacked flight MH370, switched off communication devices and steered it offcourse.
The official said that hijacking was no longer a theory. “It is conclusive,’’ he said.
The official, who spoke to Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media, said no motive had been established and no demands had been made, and it remained unclear where the plane had been taken. But signs that the plane’s communications were switched off deliberately, data about the flight path and indications the plane was steered in a way to avoid detection by radar had led to the conclusion, he said.
Malaysian officials had previously said radar data suggested it may have turned back toward and crossed over the Malaysian peninsula after setting out on a north eastern path toward the Chinese capital.
Earlier, an American official told The Associated Press that investigators were examining the possibility of “human intervention’’ in the plane’s disappearance, adding it may have been “an act of piracy”.
Piracy and pilot suicide were among other scenarios being studied as investigators grew increasingly certain the missing plane had changed course and headed west after its last radio contact with air traffic controllers.
Malaysia has faced accusations it isn’t sharing all its information or suspicions about the plane’s final movements. It insists it is being open, and says it would be irresponsible to narrow the focus of the search until there is undeniable evidence of the plane’s flight path.
A massive international search effort had focused in its early days on the South China Sea, where the plane’s transponders stopped transmitting. It had since been expanded onto the other side of the Malaysian peninsula up into the Andaman Sea and into the Indian Ocean.
A US destroyer and surveillance plane joined the expanded search operations on Saturday.
Close to 60 ships and 50 aircraft from 13 countries have been deployed across the entire search zone since MH370 went missing.
Meanwhile an extraordinary claim has suggested the jetliner may have flown off the west coast of Australia.
Regarding the Australian connection, a source cited by Bloomberg news agency, said the last satellite transmission from the airliner has been traced to the Indian Ocean off Australia, somewhere to the west of Perth.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said it had no reliable information to indicate MH370 may have approached Australia.
A spokesman said: “AMSA has not received reliable information indicating that Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH370 may have approached Australia or entered the Australian search and rescue region.
“The Bloomberg report will be passed to coordinating authorities for their assessment in the context of all of the other information they have available to them,” he said.
If the search does move to Australian waters, it will be coordinated by AMSA.
Two RAAF AP-3C Orion aircraft continue to support the Malaysian coordinated search mission for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a Defence spokesman said.
The aircraft are operating from Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth, near Penang.
The current Australian area of operations is to the West of Malaysia.
The Australian Defence Force remains closely engaged with the Malaysian authorities coordinating the search mission, said the spokesman.
As part of this international effort, any information relating to flight MH370 is passed to Malaysian authorities who are responsible for providing updated public information on efforts to locate MH370.
The Boeing 777’s communication with the ground was severed under one hour into its flight on March 8 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Malaysian officials have said radar data suggest it may have turned back and crossed back over the Malaysian peninsula westward, after setting out toward the Chinese capital.
The Malaysian official said only a skilled aviator could navigate the plane the way it was flown after its last confirmed location over the South China Sea, and that it appeared to have been steered to avoid radar detection. The official said it had been established with a “more than 50 per cent’’ degree of certainty that military radar had picked up the missing plane after it dropped off civilian radar.
The New York Times reported that radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the plane ascending to 45,000 feet and making a sharp turn to the right not long after it disappeared from civilian radar.
Forty-five thousand feet is above the approved altitude limit for a Boeing 777-200.
The information comes from “a preliminary assessment by a person familiar with the data”, the paper said.
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The same data suggests the plane descended to 23,000 feet as it approached the Malaysian island of Penang, but then re-ascended and flew northwest over the Straits of Malacca.
CNN is reporting that authorities think the plane may have gone in one of two directions after it passed through the Straits of Malacca: either northwest, towards the Bay of Bengal and the coast of India, or southwest, out into the expanse of the Indian Ocean.
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The reports are the strongest suggestion yet that the plane was being piloted after the last known contact was made with air traffic control, at 1.07am, when the plane was flying over the Gulf of Thailand.
The Wall Street Journal earlier today quoted aviation industry experts who said it was looking like the plane was the victim of sabotage, based partly on two of the disabling of the plane’s internal systems.
The paper quoted Richard Healing, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board, who said: “Increasingly, it seems to be heading into the criminal arena”.
“The emphasis is on determining if a hijacker or crew member diverted the plane,” he said.
The Star Malaysia reported that security checks are being made by intelligence agencies into the profiles of the crew and the passengers.
Indian navy ships supported by surveillance planes and helicopters scoured Andaman Sea islands for a third day today without any success in finding evidence of the missing jet, an official said.
V.S.R. Murthy, a top Indian coast guard official, said the search has been expanded farther west into the Bay of Bengal.
Nearly a dozen ships, patrol vessels, surveillance aircraft and helicopters have been deployed but ”we have got nothing so far,’’ Murthy said.
Bangladesh also joined the search effort in the Bay of Bengal with two patrol aircraft and two frigates, said Mahbubul Haque Shakil, an aide of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Seeing no headway, Malaysian authorities suggested yesterday a new search area of 9,000 square kilometres to India along the Chennai coast in the Bay of Bengal, India’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Yesterday, India used heat sensors on flights over hundreds of uninhabited Andaman Sea islands that stretch south of Myanmar, covering an area 720 kilometres long and 52 kilometres wide. Only 37 of 572 are inhabited, with the rest covered in dense forests.
The island chain has four airstrips, but only the main airport in Port Blair can handle a large commercial jet.
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Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said Malaysia was sharing information with foreign agencies and confirmed that agents were examine the activities and backgrounds of the pilots and crew. further checks are also being made on all passengers.
“I cannot confirm that there was no hijacking,” he said overnight.
It has been suggested the plane may have continued to fly on for around four hours after it lost contact with ground control.
A P-8 Poseidon aircraft and a guided missile destroyer, the USS Kidd, were due to aid the international hunt for the jet as the search effort extended further west, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said overnight.
The Kidd was preparing to search the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, he said.
“The P-8 will be searching a much larger search area … the southern portion of the Bay of Bengal and the northern portion of the Indian Ocean”.
The Boeing 777 vanished off radar early last Saturday over the South China Sea.
Its fate has vexed investigators and Malaysia authorities have dramatically expanded the scope of the search.
The hunt initially focused on the South China Sea east of Malaysia — along the jet’s intended route.
But Malaysia’s government is now looking at a vast area, with 13 countries involved.
A team from the UK was also due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur last night to help the investigation which today enters its eighth day.
The team is also investigating four or five possibilities for how the transponders on the Malaysian Airlines 777-200 came to be turned off, including intentionally or under duress.
Malaysia’s Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said last night that the search zone continues to be in two areas — the South China Sea and the Andaman Sea — because authorities are still no clearer on where the plane disappeared.
A Reuters report, which cited Malaysian military radar data, claimed overnight that a plane believed to be MH370 was “deliberately flown” towards India’s Andaman Islands, a chain of isles between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
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Mr Hussein said that it was still not certain that an aircraft tracked on military radar near Penang, in the Malacca Strait, and heading upwards to the Andaman Sea, was actually MH370.
He said that the team was currently working with US experts and gleaning data from US satellites as well as sharing sensitive data which would not normally be shared among countries.
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“It could have been intentional. It could be done under duress. It could be done because of an explosion. So that’s why I don’t want to get into the realm of speculation,” Mr Hussein said.
Mr Hussein also denied police had been to the pilot’s home or conducted any search but said this aspect of the investigation was being handled by a police taskforce.