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MISSING MH370: It was foul play
Publication Date : 16-03-2014
Malaysian PM Najib refrains from calling incident a hijack; disappearance of MH370 still a mystery
The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 entered a dramatic new phase after Prime Minister Najib Razak acknowledged for the first time that the plane was deliberately diverted, and that it could have gone as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia or southwards towards the Indian Ocean.
The revelation yesterday refocused attention on the background of the 239 passengers and crew, while sparking both outrage and relief among anxious family members in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.
Search efforts in the South China Sea were called off, as investigators refocused on two flight paths that the plane could have travelled on - one going northwards from northern Thailand towards Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southern route from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
A solemn-looking Datuk Seri Najib, however, stopped short of calling the incident a hijacking, saying: "Despite media reports that the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear: we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path."
But his account of how the aircraft deviated from its intended path, and how its communication and tracking systems were systematically disabled after take-off left no doubts that it could only have been done by someone with expert aviation knowledge.
For instance, the aircraft's transponder was switched off just as it was about to transit between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control. The jetliner was then diverted back across Peninsular Malaysia before turning north-west.
Its final communication was with a satellite - which has not been identified - at 8:11am last Saturday, almost seven hours after its last contact with air traffic control.
Malaysia Airlines earlier said the Boeing 777-200 had enough fuel to fly until 8:30am, or two hours after its scheduled landing in Beijing.
Experts were divided on whether terrorists were involved in this incident, but said it was undoubtedly the most sophisticated and audacious hostile takeover of a jetliner since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attack, when hijackers turned off the transponders in three out of four jets used to strike the United States.
"With pilot error and mechanical failure ruled out, investigation should focus on criminal and terrorist motive," international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna told The Sunday Times. "It is likely that the aircraft was hijacked by a team knowledgeable about airport and aircraft security. It is likely they were supported by a competent team from the ground."
Najib took no questions during his brief appearance at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and said nothing about the possible motives or identity of those who had taken over the plane.
Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said investigations were now focused on the plane's 227 passengers and 12 crew members. He reiterated that police were looking into four areas - hijack, sabotage, and personal and psychological problems among the 239 people.
Police yesterday searched the home of MH370's pilot, veteran Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, but made no public comments afterwards.
The latest revelation stunned many family members of the passengers. "How could this be?" exclaimed one who gathered in Beijing with several other relatives of affected passengers to watch a live telecast of Mr Najib's press briefing.
Another yelled: "The plane couldn't have flown beyond 8:11am. Where did it land?"
But some family members in Malaysia welcomed the news. Selamat Umar, 60, whose son was on MH370, said: "There's hope. Best news ever. I believe everyone is safe. I am confident we can find the plane because the whole world is helping."
But finding the plane will be no easy task, given the huge geographical area and the large number of countries involved. And while the satellite data allowed investigators to confirm that the plane was in the air for more than seven hours after take-off, it could not help pinpoint its precise location.
Malaysia Airlines added in a statement that there has never been a case in which information from satellite signals alone could be used to identify a missing plane. It also said it had shared all information with the authorities, including the "very first indications" that the plane remained flying for several hours after contact was lost.
Najib described the situation as one "without precedent", adding: "We are working with the relevant countries to request all information relevant to the search, including radar data. Clearly, the search for MH370 has entered a new phase."