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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Malaysia Airlines MH370: Investigators look into 'acts of piracy'

* Investigation focusing more on possible deliberate diversion-sources
* Radar data suggests plane was heading toward Indian Ocean-sources
* White House says search area may expand based on new information
* CNN is now reporting that the flight took one of two paths, either over the Bay of Bengal or the Indian Ocean
* 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard lost flight

BY NILUKSI KOSWANAGE AND SIVA GOVINDASAMY

Published 14/03/2014 | 08:42

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A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 14, 2014. A new search area for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may be opened in the Indian Ocean, the White House said, significantly broadening the potential location of the plane, which disappeared nearly a week ago with 239 people on board. REUTERS/Edgar Su (MALAYSIA - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT)
A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 14, 2014.
A tourist walks past a signboard saying "Pray for MH370" in front of the Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC) March 14, 2014. A new search area for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may be opened in the Indian Ocean, the White House said, significantly broadening the potential location of the plane, which disappeared nearly a week ago with 239 people on board.   REUTERS/Samsul Said (MALAYSIA - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT)
A tourist walks past a signboard saying "Pray for MH370" in front of the Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC) March 14, 2014.
A relative cries as she arrives at a hotel designated as a holding area for family members of passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370, Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Sepang, Malaysia. More than four days after a Malaysian jetliner went missing on route to Beijing, authorities acknowledged Wednesday they didn't know in which direction the plane and its 239 passengers was heading when it disappeared, vastly complicating efforts to find it.  (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)
A relative cries as she arrives at a hotel designated as a holding area for family members of passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370, Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Sepang, Malaysia. More than four days after a Malaysian jetliner went missing on route to Beijing, authorities acknowledged Wednesday they didn't know in which direction the plane and its 239 passengers was heading when it disappeared, vastly complicating efforts to find it. (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)

Investigators are increasingly certain that someone with aviation skills was responsible for the change in course, a Malaysian government official has said.

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In a far more detailed description of military radar plotting than has been publicly revealed, two sources told Reuters an unidentified aircraft that investigators suspect was missing Flight MH370 appeared to be following a commonly used navigational route when it was last spotted early on Saturday, northwest of Malaysia.

That course - headed into the Andaman Sea and towards the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean - could only have been set deliberately, either by flying the Boeing 777-200ER jet manually or by programming the auto-pilot.

A US official said investigators are examining the possibility of "human intervention" in the plane's disappearance, adding it may have been "an act of piracy." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it also was possible the plane may have landed somewhere.

A third investigative source said inquiries were focusing more on the theory that someone who knew how to fly a plane deliberately diverted the flight hundreds of miles off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"What we can say is we are looking at sabotage, with hijack still on the cards," said the source, a senior Malaysian police official.

One of the most baffling mysteries in the history of modern aviation remains unsolved after nearly a week.

The latest radar evidence is consistent with the expansion of the search for the aircraft to the west of Malaysia, possibly as far as the Indian Ocean.

There has been no trace of the plane nor any sign of wreckage as the navies and military aircraft of more than a dozen countries scour the seas across Southeast Asia.

Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he could not confirm the last heading of the plane or if investigators were focusing on sabotage.

"A normal investigation becomes narrower with time ... as new information focuses the search, but this is not a normal investigation," he told a news conference. "In this case, the information has forced us to look further and further afield."

Investigators were still looking at "four or five" possibilities, including a diversion that was intentional or under duress, or an explosion, he said. Police would search the pilot's home if necessary and were still investigating all 239 passengers and crew on the plane, he added.

INDIAN OCEAN "BIGGEST CHALLENGE"

If the jetliner did stray into the Indian Ocean, a vast expanse with depths of more than 7,000 metres (23,000 feet), the task faced by searchers would become dramatically more difficult. Winds and currents could shift any surface debris tens of nautical miles within hours, dramatically widening the search area with each passing day.

"Ships alone are not going to get you that coverage, helicopters are barely going to make a dent in it and only a few countries fly P-3s (long-range search aircraft)," William Marks, spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, told Reuters.

"So this massive expanse of water space will be the biggest challenge."

MALAYSIA-AIRLINES/DISTANCES –  Diagrams comparing the distance from position of last known contact to wreckage location in a group of similar accidents. Includes comparisons of search area sizes and time taken to discover first signs of debris.
Diagrams comparing the distance from position of last known contact to wreckage location in a group of similar accidents. Includes comparisons of search area sizes and time taken to discover first signs of debris.

The U.S. Navy was sending an advanced P-8A Poseidon plane to help search the Strait of Malacca, a busy sealane separating the Malay Peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It had already deployed a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft to those waters.

U.S. defence officials told Reuters that the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, USS Kidd, was heading to the Strait of Malacca, answering a request from the Malaysian government. The Kidd had been searching the areas south of the Gulf of Thailand, along with the destroyer USS Pinckney.

"It's my understanding that based on some new information that's not necessarily conclusive - but new information - an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

Carney did not specify the nature of the new information.

Satellites picked up faint electronic pulses from the aircraft after it went missing on Saturday, but the signals gave no immediate information about where the jet was heading and little else about its fate, two sources close to the investigation said on Thursday.

U.S. experts are still examining the data to see if any information about its last location could be extracted, a source close to the investigation told Reuters. Malaysia's civil aviation chief confirmed on Friday the government was working with U.S. investigators to establish if there was any satellite information that could help locate the airliner.

LAST RADAR SIGHTING

The last sighting of the aircraft on civilian radar screens came shortly before 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, less than an hour after take-off. It was flying as scheduled across the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of peninsular Malaysia, heading towards Beijing.

However, Malaysia's air force chief said on Wednesday that an aircraft that could have been the missing plane was plotted on military radar at 2:15 a.m., 200 miles (320 km) northwest of Penang Island off Malaysia's west coast.

This position marks the limit of Malaysia's military radar in that part of the country, a fourth source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Malaysia says it has asked neighbouring countries for their radar data, but has not confirmed receiving the information. Indonesian and Thai authorities said on Friday they had not received an official request for such data from Malaysia.

The fact that the plane - if it was MH370 - had lost contact with air traffic control and was invisible to civilian radar suggested someone on board had turned off its communication systems, the first two sources said.

They also gave new details on the direction in which the unidentified aircraft was heading - following aviation corridors identified on maps used by pilots as N571 and P628 - routes taken by commercial planes flying from Southeast Asia to the Middle East or Europe.

Hishammuddin said it remained unclear if that aircraft was MH370. "We need to get verification and we are working very closely with the experts," he said.

MILITARY DEPLOYMENT GROWS

Ships and aircraft are now combing a vast area that had already been widened to cover both sides of the Malay Peninsula and the Andaman Sea.

An already difficult search task has been complicated in some areas by a choking haze caused by burning forest and farmland that has enveloped much of Malaysia and spilled into the Strait of Malacca. The haze, exacerbated by a prolonged dry spell, has reached hazardous levels in several spots.

"The haze will affect the search and rescue operations for sure. The visibility at the ground level has dropped to less than 3 km (1.9 miles)," Amirzudi Hashim, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Center, told Reuters.

India had deployed ships, planes and helicopters from the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, an Indian military spokesman, Harmeet Singh, said on Friday.

Two Dornier aircraft were searching the land mass of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, a total area of 720 km by 52 km, Singh said.

China, which had more than 150 citizens on board the missing plane, has deployed four warships, four coastguard vessels, eight aircraft and trained 10 satellites on a wide search area. Chinese media have described the ship deployment as the largest Chinese rescue fleet ever assembled.

The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall with its undercarriage on landing in San Francisco. Three people died.

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