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Vanishing Malaysia plane remains a mystery

Military personnel work within the cockpit of a helicopter belonging to the Vietnamese airforce during a search and rescue mission off Vietnam's Tho Chu island March 10, 2014. (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

KUALA LUMPUR/PHU QUOC ISLAND, Vietnam: The disappearance of the Malaysian flight MH370 is an “unprecedented mystery,” Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said, as a massive air and sea search entered its fourth day Tuesday without any trace of the plane or 239 people on board.

Dozens of ships and aircraft from 10 different countries scoured the water between Malaysia and Vietnam as questions mounted over possible security lapses and suspicions that a bomb or hijacking attempt could have brought down the Boeing 777-200ER, which took off from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.

The area of the search would be widened from Tuesday, Azharuddin Abdul-Rahman, the head of Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters.

A senior police official told Reuters that people carrying explosives and false identity papers had tried to fly out of Kuala Lumpur in the past, and that current investigations were focused on two passengers who boarded the missing plane with stolen passports.

“We have stopped men with false or stolen passports and carrying explosives, who have tried to get past KLIA [airport] security and get on to a plane,” he said. “There have been two or three incidents, but I will not divulge the details.”

Interpol confirmed Sunday that at least two passengers used stolen passports and said it was checking whether others aboard had also used false identity documents.

Azharuddin said a hijacking attempt could not be ruled out as investigators explore all theories for the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

“Unfortunately we have not found anything that appears to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,” he told a news conference. “As far as we are concerned, we have to find the aircraft. We have to find a piece of the aircraft if possible.”

Azharuddin also said the two men with stolen passports did not look Asian, but he did not elaborate further. Airport CCTV footage showed they completed all security procedures, he said.

“We are looking at the possibility of a stolen passport syndicate,” Azharuddin said.

About two thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew now presumed to have died aboard the plane were Chinese. The airline said that among the other passengers were 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.China urged Malaysia to speed up the search for the plane. “This incident happened more than two days ago, and we hope that the Malaysians can fully understand the urgency of China, especially of the family members, and can step up the speed of the investigation and increase efforts on search and rescue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing.

A senior source involved in preliminary investigations in Malaysia said the wreckage could have been dispersed over a very wide area. “The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,” said the source.

Asked about the possibility of an explosion, the source said there was no evidence of foul play and that the aircraft could have broken up due to mechanical causes.

Still, the source said the closest parallels were the bomb explosions on board an Air India jetliner in 1985 when it was over the Atlantic Ocean and a Pan Am aircraft over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Both planes were cruising at around 31,000 feet at the time of the blasts.

The United States reviewed imagery taken by American spy satellites for evidence of a mid-air explosion, but found none, a U.S. government source said. The source described U.S. satellite coverage of the region as thorough.

Hopes for a breakthrough rose briefly when Vietnam scrambled helicopters to investigate a floating yellow object it was thought could have been a life raft. But the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said on its website that the object turned out to be a “moss-covered cap of a cable reel.”

Flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur, after climbing to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.

Underlining the lack of hard information about the plane’s fate, a U.S. Navy P-3 aircraft capable of covering 1,500 square miles every hour was sweeping the northern part of the Strait of Malacca, on the other side of the Malaysian peninsula from where the last contact with MH370 was made.

No distress signal was sent from the lost plane, which experts said suggested a sudden catastrophic failure or explosion, but Malaysia’s air force chief said radar tracking showed it may have turned back from its scheduled route before it disappeared.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 11, 2014, on page 1.

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