Missing jet may have 'disintegrated mid-flight'
Officials cannot rule out terrorist attack as intelligence agencies investigate how up to four passengers with false passports were able to board the missing plane. Military radar shows Malaysian Airlines plane with 239 passengers on board may have turned back
Published 09/03/2014 | 07:20
OFFICIALS investigating the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner with 239 people on board are narrowing the focus of their inquiries on the possibility that it disintegrated in mid-flight, a senior source told Reuters.
Malaysia Airlines flight 370 vanished after climbing to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in the early hours of Saturday.
Vietnam's Civil Aviation Authority had said earlier this afternoon that a navy plane had found an object believed to belong to the missing aircraft.
But less than an hour after the statement was made, Vietnam said it had turned out to be nothing to do with the plane.
The crew of the DHC-6 plane saw the debris, some 60 miles south-south west of Tho Chu islands, but could not see any marks or identifiable signs.
Malaysian officials had earlier said no wreckage had yet been found, despite a search involving 34 aircraft and 40 ships.
"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, who is involved in the investigations in Malaysia.
If the plane had plunged intact from such a height, breaking up only on impact with the water, search teams would have expected to find a fairly concentrated pattern of debris, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly on the investigation.
Asked about the possibility of an explosion, such as a bomb, the source said there was no evidence yet of foul play and that the aircraft could have broken up due to mechanical issues.
Malaysian authorities have said they are focused on finding the plane and have declined to comment when asked about the investigations.
International police agency Interpol confirmed that at least two passports recorded in its database as lost or stolen were used by passengers on the flight, raising suspicions of foul play.
An Interpol spokeswoman said a check of all documents used to board the plane had revealed more "suspect passports" that were being further investigated. She was unable to say how many, or from which country or countries.
The authorities are also investigating suggestions that radar images showed the aircraft may have turned back before vanishing.
The development came as planes and ships from across Asia resumed the hunt today for the plane.
The weather was fine, the plane was already cruising and the pilots had no time to send a distress signal - unusual circumstance for a modern jetliner to crash.
Yesterday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight's manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
This, and the sudden disappearance of the plane that experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, strengthened existing concerns about terrorism as a possible cause for the disappearance. Al Qaida militants have used similar tactics to try and disguise their identities.
Yesterday, Malaysian transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that authorities were now looking at four possible cases of suspect identities.
He said Malaysian intelligence agencies were in contact with their international counterparts, including the FBI.
"All the four names are with me and have been given to our intelligence agencies," he said. "We do not want to target only the four; we are investigating the whole passenger manifest. We are looking at all possibilities."
Meanwhile, Malaysia's air force chief says that military radar indicated the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back, but declined to give further details on how far the plane may have veered off course.
Rodzali Daud told a press conference today that "there is a possible indication that the aircraft made a turnback," adding that authorities were "trying to make sense of that".
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the pilot is supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if he does return, but that officials had received no such distress call.
Li Jiaxiang, administrator of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said some debris had been spotted, but it was unclear whether it came from the plane.
Vietnamese authorities said they had seen nothing close to two large oil slicks they saw yesterday and said might be from the missing plane.
Two-thirds of the jet's passengers were from China. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
The parents and the elder brother of these 2 children are on #MH370 (Photo: Twitter/ @H20Comms)
Malaysia's civil aviation chief Azaharuddin Abdul Rahman said his country had expanded its area of operation to the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, on the other side of the country from where the plane disappeared.
"We are looking at the possibility of an aircraft air turn back, in which case different locations will have to be identified," Mr Hishammuddin said.
Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort.
Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over many square miles. If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all teenagers from China.
Investigators will need access to the flight data recorders to determine what happened.
Aviation and terrorism experts said revelations about stolen passports would strengthen speculation of foul play. They also acknowledged other scenarios, including some catastrophic failure of the engines or structure of the plane, extreme turbulence or pilot error or even suicide, were also possible.
Professor Jason Middleton, the head of the Sydney-based University of New South Wales' School of Aviation, said terrorism or some other form of foul play seemed a likely explanation.
"You're looking at some highly unexpected thing, and the only ones people can think of are basically foul play, being either a bomb or some immediate incapacitating of the pilots by someone doing the wrong thing and that might lead to an airplane going straight into the ocean," he said.
"With two stolen passports (on board), you'd have to suspect that that's one of the likely options."
Just 9% of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet accidents done by Boeing.
Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said yesterday there was no indication the pilots had sent a distress signal.
The plane was last inspected 10 days ago and found to be "in proper condition," Ignatius Ong, chief executive of Malaysia Airlines subsidiary Firefly airlines, said at a news conference.
Greg Barton, a professor of international politics at Australia's Monash University and a terrorism expert, said if the disaster was the result of terrorism, there is no obvious suspect.
If it was terrorism, he expected China would be quick to blame separatists from the ethnic Uighur minority, as authorities did recently when 29 people were killed in knife attacks at a train station in the southern city of Kunming.
"If a group like that is behind it, then suddenly they've got a capacity that we didn't know they had before, they've executed it very well - that's very scary," he said.
"It's safe to start with the assumption that that's not very likely, but possible."
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