March 16, 2014 00:00 By Agence France-Presse Kuala Lu
Communication was manually switched off and jet flew for hours after that, says Najib; Search operations in South China Sea called off
A missing Malaysian airliner was apparently deliberately diverted and flown for hours after vanishing from radar, Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday, stopping short of confirming a hijack but taking the “excruciating” jet drama into uncharted new territory.
Najib said investigators believed “with a high degree of certainty” that Malaysia Airlines flight 370’s communications systems were manually switched off, and that the plane veered westward in a fashion “consistent with deliberate action” after dropping off primary radar.
But he told a highly anticipated press conference watched around the globe that he could not confirm rising suspicions that the plane had been forcibly taken over.
“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,” he said.
The investigation data appeared to cast aside a host of theories attempting to explain the plane’s disappearance, which has transfixed the world and left the families of the 239 passengers and crew distraught, enraged and baying for information that authorities have not been able to provide.
“We realise this is an excruciating time for the families of those on board. No words can describe the pain they must be going through,” Najib said. He did not take questions.
Previous theories included a sudden mid-air explosion, catastrophic equipment or structural failure, or a crash into the South China Sea.
At the same time, the announcement opened a whole new avenue of speculation including an attempted 9/11-style attack, enhancing the intrigue surrounding one of the biggest enigmas in modern aviation history.
Final satellite communication with the Boeing 777 flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing came more than six and a half hours after it vanished from civilian radar at 1.30am on March 8, Najib said.
That would have been around the time that Malaysia Airlines has said the plane would have run out of fuel.
He said investigators had concluded the plane was indeed diverted to the west from its original flight path, and as a result search operations in the South China Sea were being called off.
But the remaining area remained dauntingly large. Najib said the plane could be anywhere from “Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand, or a southern corridor stretching approximately from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean”.
Earlier, a senior Malaysian military official had told AFP that investigators now believe the plane was commandeered by a “skilled, competent and current pilot” who knew how to avoid radar.
The official stopped short of specifying whether a hijacker or member of the crew was suspected.
As the search for the plane continues, the focus in the gripping saga will shift to who would have diverted the plane and why.
Malaysian security officials were already embarrassed by revelations earlier in the week that two Iranian men had managed to board the plane using stolen European passports.
It could also bring new attention on Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27. Malaysian reporters said they witnessed police enter Zaharie’s house yesterday. They said police spent two hours there. Police declined comment.
An Australian television station had days earlier broadcast an interview with a young South African woman who alleged Fariq and another pilot colleague invited them into the cockpit of a flight he co-piloted in 2011 – a breach of post-9/11 security rules.
Gerry Soejatman, a Jakarta-based independent aviation analyst, told AFP the new information makes a motive in a possible terror conspiracy “extremely difficult to understand”.
“If that was deliberate, we may be dealing with something beyond the mission planning for 9/11,” he said.
As reports mounted suggesting the plane had banked west, analysts have speculated on a sudden loss of cabin pressure or other mechanical event that incapacitated the pilots, catastrophic pilot error, a hijack, action by a rogue member of the flight crew or pilot suicide.
An international search effort has steadily shifted search and rescue resources towards the Indian Ocean.
Dozens of ships and aircraft from 14 countries have been deployed across the entire search zone since MH370 went missing.
Malaysia has not been the target of any notable terror attacks, but terror analysts say it is home to several individuals alleged to be operatives of militant Islamic groups such as the al-Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiyah.