Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: India and Japan join 12-nation search, but solid information is as scarce as ever

 

Asia Correspondent

Officials have admitted they still have no idea where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 may have disappeared and said that planes and ships from 12 separate nations were now searching 27,000 square miles of ocean.

Amid increasing frustration and criticism of Malaysian authorities for the seemingly contradictory information they have been delivering, officials said they had again extended the search area. Japan and India are the latest countries to join the effort, continuing on both sides of the Malay peninsula

On Wednesday morning, Malaysia’s ambassador to China told relatives of passengers in Beijing that the last words spoken with the pilots of the Boeing 777 were with air traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur as the plane  neared Vietnamese air-space. “We are handing you over to the the zone under Ho Chi Minh,” said one of the controllers. “Ok. Roger that,” replied a pilot.

The latest news emerged as more details trickled out concerning the pilot and co-pilot of Flight MH370. Yesterday Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that it was shocked by reports made against its First Officer, Fariq Ab Hamid, who was the co-pilot of the missing flight.

A South African tourist told Australia’s Channel Nine that she and her friend were invited to sit in the cockpit with Fariq Ab Hamid and the pilot during a flight in 2011, in an apparent breach of airline rules. Malaysia Airlines said it took the reports “very seriously”.

 

“We regret and empathise with the families and we will do whatever we can to ease their burden,” the airline said in a statement. “We are as anxious as the families to know the status of their loved ones.”

Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the pilot, has been described as a "tech geek". A colleague of Shah's told the Reuters news agency: “He was an aviation tech geek. You could ask him anything and he would help you. That is the kind of guy he is."

Relatives of the 239 passengers and crew have been increasingly upset at the lack of hard facts and the often conflicting messages coming out of Kuala Lumpur. On Tuesday, it was reported that military officials believed the plane may have veered west and flown for hundreds of miles after its last known position fixed by civilian radar.

At a press conference on Wednesday, officials sought to explain the confusion by revealing that the suggestion was based on examination of a secondary, military radar. Analysis of recorded data showed a dot on the radar at 02.15am on Saturday, at a point around 200 miles north-west of the Malaysian island of Penang.

“We said there was a possibility of a turn-back. But we are not sure it was this aircraft. We are not sure,” said Malaysia’s air force chief, Rodzali Daud. “We did not track it in real time. We saw a recording of the data.”

In essence, it appears that officials know precious little more now than they did on the first day the plane went missing. Two passengers who boarded the flight using stolen passports and who triggered concerns that the plane may have been downed in a terror plot, have since been shown to be young Iranians seeking to migrate to Europe.

There have been numerous reported sightings of possible debris and oil from the plane, but all have proved to be red herrings. In the latest such incident, the Vietnamese authorities said they were investigating a report emailed from a worker on the Songa Mercur oil rig, who contacted them to say he had spotted what he believed could have been a plane on fire, to the east of Vietnam’s Cau Ma peninsula.

Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur on what should have been a six-hour flight to Beijing early Saturday morning and last made contact with ground control officials about 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and southern Vietnam before vanishing.

On Wednesday, Malaysian officials denied that their operation was chaotic and insisted the information they had been providing was consistent. Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the cousin of Prime Minister Najib Razak, said as time passed it was more likely the the search and rescue operation was turning into simply a search operation, yet insisted Malaysia would not give up until the plane had been located.

“We will not give up. We owe it to the family members,” he said.

Malaysian officials have not ruled out any possible cause for the plane’s disappearance, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage or terrorism. Both the Boeing 777 and Malaysia Airlines have excellent safety records. Officials say until the plane is located it will be very hard to say what happened.

India’s ministry of external affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said Wednesday that Malaysian authorities had contacted their Indian counterparts seeking help in searching areas near the Andaman Sea.

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