Malaysia expands search for missing jet

March 15, 2014 - 3:18:41 am

Muslims perform Friday prayers at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It included a special prayer for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia said yesterday it was dramatically expanding the vast scope of its search for a missing passenger plane, admitting it was no closer to solving the agonising aviation mystery a week after the jet vanished.

“The aircraft is still missing, and the search area is expanding,” said Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

“Together with our international partners, we are pushing further east into the South China Sea and further into the Indian Ocean.” 

Hishammuddin said he could offer no new information on the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared from radar screens over Southeast Asia last Saturday, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.

“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time, as new information focuses the search,” said Hishammuddin. 

“But this is not a normal investigation,” he said, lamenting that the lack of success in the search so far “forces us to look further and further afield.”

Fifty-seven ships and 48 aircraft from 13 countries are now deployed across the entire search zone, he added.

The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest with an average depth of nearly 12,800 feet. It is like going “from a chessboard to a football field”, Commander William Marks of the US 7th Fleet told CNN. 

Hishammuddin refused to comment on the host of theories swirling around the plane’s fate.

“Anything is possible” he said, stressing that he would confirm only what could be verified.

China kept up the pressure, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei urging Malaysia to release any information they might have “in an accurate and timely fashion.”

Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation analyst based in Jakarta, was sceptical that the plane could have flown undetected to the Indian Ocean given the number of military radars operated in the region by Malaysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia.

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

The 14-minute interval suggests they may have been deliberately disabled or at any rate did not fail as a result of a sudden catastrophic airframe incident, the US network said.

Coupled with radar data that Malaysia said indicates a “possibility” that the plane may have inexplicably started to turn back, the sequential shutdown could lend credence to the theory of a cockpit takeover.

But Soejatman said the time lag could have been the result of a fire, “and then the systems go down one by one”. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be deliberate,” he said. The plane lost radar contact at around 1:30 am, less than an hour after takeoff, according to Malaysian officials.

Inmarsat, the satellite operator cited in US media reports, said: “Routine, automated signals were registered on the Inmarsat network from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 during its flight from Kuala Lumpur.” 

The information had been relayed to the airline, the British company said, refusing to comment further.

Meanwhile, a US naval ship and surveillance plane left for the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal to search for the airliner .

A P-8 Poseidon aircraft and a guided missile destroyer, the USS Kidd, are to aid the international hunt for the jet as the search effort extended further west, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren said.

“At Malaysia’s request, the USS Kidd is north of the Strait of Malacca in what we’re calling the western search area,” he said.

“The P-8 will search a larger area.. the southern portion of the Bay of Bengal and the northern portion of the Indian Ocean,” he said, adding that final orders had yet to be issued.

India’s navy said it had nearly doubled the number of ships and planes deployed to search the Andaman Sea. 

Authorities also said Malaysia had asked India to extend its search further west to the Bay of Bengal, which forms the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean.

The navy said six ships and five aircraft were scouring for any sign of the plane in the Andaman Sea, which surrounds India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar group of islands that lie far to the country’s southeast. 

“We want to cover the area and it should be strictly done,” Indian naval spokesman D K Sharma said. The Indian ships and aircraft are looking in an area “designated” by the Malaysian navy in the southern region of the Andaman Sea, he added.

Agencies

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