Missing plane tracked flying low, off course

Last updated 08:14 12/03/2014
Reuters

World leaders offer their condolences for the passengers of a missing Malaysian jetliner, as an air and sea search fails to find any confirmed trace of the plane.

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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds satellite images as he speaks about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 26.

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A Malaysian Air Force official says missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 may have been hundreds of kilometres off course when it disappeared.

In one of the most baffling mysteries in recent aviation history, a massive search operation for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER, now in its fourth day, has so far found no trace of the aircraft or the 239 passengers and crew.

The senior official told CNN the military have traced the last know location of the flight to a very small island called Pulau Perak in the Strait of Malacca, hundreds of miles from the normal Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight path.

If that report is correct, the aircraft was flying in the opposite direction from its scheduled destination and on the opposite side of the Malay Peninsula from its scheduled route.

Another military source said the jet changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude.

The Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shipping channels, runs along Malaysia's west coast. The airline said on Saturday (local time) that radio and radar contact with Flight MH370 was lost off the east coast Malaysian town of Kota Bharu.

Previous reports had the aircraft losing contact with air traffic control near the coast of Vietnam and most of the search had been concentrated on that area.

The developments inject more mystery into the investigation of the disappearance of Saturday's flight, and raises questions about why the aircraft was not transmitting signals detectable by civilian radar.

Local newspaper Berita Harian quoted Malaysian air force chief General Rodzali Daud as saying radar at a military base had detected the airliner at 2.40am, local time, near Pulau Perak at the northern approach to the Malacca Strait, a  waterway that separates the western coast of Malaysia and Indonesia's Sumatra island.

"After that, the signal from the plane was lost," he was quoted as saying.

A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed the report and also said the plane was believed to be flying low.

Investigators suspect a catastrophic mid-air explosion caused by a bomb in the cargo hold or a highly unusual technical fault is likely to have led to the sudden disappearance of flight MH370, but have not ruled out a number of other possibilities.

Police had earlier said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might explain its disappearance, along with the possibility of a hijack, sabotage or mechanical failure.

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The plane left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on Saturday morning, vanishing from civilian radar screens about an hour after take-off over the sea separating eastern Malaysia from the southern tip of Vietnam.

There was no distress signal or radio contact indicating a problem and, in the absence of any wreckage or flight data, police have been left trawling through passenger and crew lists for potential leads.

"Maybe somebody on the flight has bought a huge sum of insurance, who wants family to gain from it or somebody who has owed somebody so much money, you know, we are looking at all possibilities," Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference.

"We are looking very closely at the video footage taken at the KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), we are studying the behavioural pattern of all the passengers."

STOLEN PASSPORTS

The fact that at least two passengers on board the plane used stolen passports, confirmed by Interpol, has raised suspicions of foul play. But Southeast Asia is known as a hub for false documents that are also used by smugglers, illegal migrants and asylum seekers.

Both men entered Malaysia on February 28, at least one from Phuket, in Thailand, eight days before boarding the flight to Beijing, Malaysian immigration chief Aloyah Mamat told the news conference. Both held onward reservations to Western Europe.

Police in Thailand, where the passports were stolen and the tickets used by the two men were booked, said they did not think they were linked to the disappearance of the plane.

"We haven't ruled it out, but the weight of evidence we're getting swings against the idea that these men are or were involved in terrorism," Supachai Puikaewcome, chief of police in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, said.

Police identified one of the passengers travelling on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane on a stolen passport as a 19-year-old Iranian seeking to illegally migrate to Germany.

However, Malaysia's national police chief, Kalid Abu Bakar, told reporters the revelation that Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdr was travelling to meet his mother in Frankfurt does not make it any less likely the Boeing 777 was the target of terrorists.

"We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group, and we believe he was trying to migrate to Germany," Khalid said of the teenager. His mother was waiting for him in Frankfurt and had been in contact with authorities, he said.

"When he didn’t arrive she knew something had happened," he said.

Kalid said police are now focusing their investigations into the possibility of a hijacking or sabotage and are checking the psychological and personal backgrounds of all 239 people on board.

He said police are also looking into the possibility that a bomb was smuggled into the cargo hold of the plane, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it vanished.

"We are looking one by one into every area," he said.

Lindsay Murdoch, SMH, with Reuters, AP

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