Vietnamese military personnel look out of a helicopter during a search and rescue mission off Vietnam’s Tho Chu island yesterday.
KUALA LUMPUR: Mystery deepened yesterday over the fate of a Malaysian jet carrying 239 people, as tests on oil slicks scotched suspicions it was aircraft fuel while the search for debris failed to yield any trace of the missing aircraft.
Laboratory analysis of the oil samples showed they were not from the Malaysia Airlines jet but were a type of fuel used by ships, the Maritime Enforcement Agency said in Kuala Lumpur.
The area became a focus for frantic international search efforts for the Boeing 777 after the large tongues of oil were found in the water on Saturday, hours after the plane dropped off the radar.
In a day of conflicting information which deepened relatives’ anguish, initial reports of debris off southern Vietnam were ruled out, before an aircraft spotted another object which appeared to be a life raft.
Malaysia said it was sending ships to investigate the raft sighting, but a Vietnamese vessel that got there first found only flotsam in the busy shipping lane. “When we reached the site we recovered only a mouldy cable reel cover,” Vietnamese army deputy chief of staff Vo Vo Tuan said.
Anger mounted amid a scramble for answers, and China — which had 153 of its nationals on board — said Malaysia needed to “step up” its efforts after authorities admitted they were mystified by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370.
Beijing’s state media lashed out at Malaysia and MAS over their handling of the crisis. “The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities,” the Global Times newspaper wrote in a scathing editorial. “The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough.”
Malaysia has launched a terror probe after at least two of the passengers on board the plane were found to have travelled on stolen passports. The country’s police chief said yesterday that one of them had been identified, but gave no further details.
Malaysia’s head of civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, had few answers to the burning questions surrounding the plane’s fate. Asked whether it was possible the plane had been hijacked or disintegrated mid-air, he said nothing could be ruled out. “We are looking at every angle. We are looking at every aspect of what could have happened,” he said. “This unprecedented missing aircraft mystery — it is mystifying and we are increasing our efforts to do what we have to do.”
At a Beijing hotel, Malaysian embassy officials were processing visa applications for families wanting to take up an offer from MAS to travel to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the rescue operations. Scores of relatives made their way into the room, some in groups of five or six, clutching handkerchiefs and wiping away tears from their faces.
Others said they would not go. “There is more we can do here in China,” one woman said. “They haven’t even found the plane yet.”
A team of Chinese officials from government ministries headed for Malaysia, tasked with investigating the incident and helping family members already there.
As the search entered a third full day, other families of missing passengers gathered at a hotel in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, sharing breakfast as they stared intently at television news bulletins. The search effort in the morning zeroed in on waters off the remote Vietnamese island of Tho Chu, near where the two large oil slicks and debris were spotted on the weekend.
As part of the search effort involving several countries and dozens of planes and ships, mostly in the South China Sea, Malaysian authorities said they were also combing waters closer to their shores, further south of Tho Chu.
Questions have also swirled over how the two passengers boarded the jet on stolen passports. Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said that the man identified as using one of the passports is a non-Malaysian who was identified using airport video surveillance.
Home Minister Zahid Hamidi reportedly said that the two passengers who used the passports looked Asian in appearance. “I am still puzzled how come (immigration officers) cannot think: an Italian and Austrian but with Asian facial features,” he was quoted as saying by Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama.