Malaysia Air Force chief denies saying lost plane tracked to west

AP, Reuters

Malaysia’s air force chief has denied saying military radar tracked a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner over the Strait of Malacca, adding to the mystery surrounding the fate of flight MH370, which vanished Saturday with 239 people aboard.

A massive air and sea search now in its fifth day has failed to find any trace of the Boeing 777, and the last 24 hours have seen conflicting statements and reports over what may have happened after it lost contact with air traffic controllers.

Malaysia’s Berita Harian newspaper on Tuesday quoted air force chief Rodzali Daud as saying the plane was last detected by military radar at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca at 2.40 a.m. Saturday, hundreds of kilometers off course.

“I wish to state that I did not make any such statements,” Rodzali said in a statement Wednesday. The air force chief said he had merely repeated that military radar tracking suggested the plane might have turned back.

A senior military officer who had been briefed on the investigation told Reuters on Tuesday that the aircraft had made a detour to the west after communications with civilian authorities ended.

“It changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude. It made it into the Malacca Strait,” the officer said.

Malaysian authorities have said previously that flight MH370 disappeared around 1:30 a.m., roughly midway between Malaysia’s east coast town of Kota Bharu and southern Vietnam, about an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.

The Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, runs along Malaysia’s west coast, while Kota Bharu is on the northeast coast.

After the comments from the officer, a nonmilitary source familiar with the investigations said the reported detour was one of several theories and was being checked.

If the plane had made such a detour it would undermine the theory that it suffered a sudden, catastrophic mechanical failure, as it would mean it flew at least 500 km (350 miles) after its last contact with air traffic control.

A spokesman for the Malaysian prime minister’s office said Wednesday he had not been informed by the military of evidence showing the plane had recrossed the Malay Peninsula to reach the Malacca Strait.

“The people I checked with were not aware of that,” spokesman Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad told Reuters.

A huge international search operation has been mostly focused on the shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand off Malaysia’s east coast, although the Strait of Malacca has been included since Sunday.

Navy ships, military aircraft, helicopters, coast guard and civilian vessels from 10 nations have crisscrossed the seas off both coasts of Malaysia without success.

In the absence of any concrete evidence to explain the plane’s disappearance, authorities have not ruled out anything. Police have said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might shed light on the mystery, along with the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage or mechanical failure.

“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 said at a news conference Tuesday.

An Australian TV station reported that the first officer on the missing plane, Fariq Abdul Hamid, had invited two women into the cockpit during a flight two years ago. One of the women, Jonti Roos, described the encounter on Australia’s “A Current Affair.”

Roos said she and a friend were allowed to stay in the cockpit during the entire one-hour flight on Dec. 14, 2011, from Phuket, Thailand, to Kuala Lumpur. She said the arrangement did not seem unusual to the plane’s crew.

“Throughout the entire flight, they were talking to us and they were actually smoking throughout the flight,” said Roos, who didn’t immediately reply to a message sent to her via Facebook. The second pilot on the 2011 flight was not identified

Malaysia Airlines said it took the allegations very seriously, which it said it was not able to confirm, adding: “We are in the midst of a crisis, and we do not want our attention to be diverted.”

Also Tuesday, Malaysian and international police authorities said two people who boarded Flight MH370 with stolen passports were Iranians who had bought tickets to Europe, where they planning to migrate. Their presence on the flight had raised speculation of a possible terrorist link.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said investigators had determined one was a 19-year-old Iranian, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad. “We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said.

Interpol identified the second man as Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, a 29-year-old Iranian, and released an image of the two boarding at the same time. Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble said the two men traveled to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then apparently switched to their stolen Austrian and Italian documents.

CIA Director John Brennan said in Washington that Malaysian authorities “are looking very carefully at what went wrong; you know, if these individuals got onto the plane with these stolen passports, why they were not aware of it.”

He also said there has been “a lot of speculation right now — some claims of responsibility that have not been, you know, confirmed or corroborated at all. We are looking at it very carefully.”

Asked if terrorism could be ruled out, Brennan replied, “No, I wouldn’t rule it out. Not at all.”

The United States has sent two navy ships, at least one of which is equipped with helicopters, and a navy P-3C Orion plane that can detect small debris in the water. It said the Malaysian government had done a “tremendous job” organizing the land and sea effort.

Vietnamese planes and ships also are a major component of the effort.

Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of Vietnamese People’s Army, said authorities on land had also been ordered to search for the plane, which could have crashed into mountains or jungle. He said military units near the border with Laos and Cambodia had been instructed to search their regions.

“So far we have found no signs . . . so we must widen our search on land,” he said.