|Devotees perform a special prayer session for MH370 passengers at Gurdwara Sahib in Sungai Besi.— Photo The Star
by Carolyn Hong and Yong Yen Nie
SINGAPORE — Malaysian police step up probe into passengers, crew and even ground staff.
The hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner has become much more complex, with 25 countries now joining the search which spans 11 countries and a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean, Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on March 16.
He said the search was equally focused on both flight routes that the plane might have taken: Northwards from northern Thailand to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and southwards from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
"From focusing mainly on shallow seas, we are now looking at large tracts of land, crossing 11 countries, as well as deep and remote oceans," he said at a press conference.
"The number of countries involved in the search and rescue operation has increased from 14 to 25, which brings new challenges of coordination and diplomacy to the search effort."
Malaysia has requested the assistance of the countries along the possible flight paths, including asking for satellite data, radar playback, permission to search in their territory, and help with ships and planes for the search.
It has also asked countries that own satellites, including the United States, China and France, to provide more information.
As the evidence now suggests that the plane was deliberately diverted after its communication systems were disabled, the police have stepped up investigations into the passengers, crew and even ground staff.
The disabling of the communication systems and the fact that the aircraft turned back suggest that aviation expertise was involved.
Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the police were looking into a possible hijacking, as well as sabotage and terrorism.
He said the police had not ruled out anyone on board, though some foreign intelligence agencies had cleared all passengers of having previous "negative records".
China, which has the most passengers on board, and India are among the countries which responded. Malaysia was still waiting for the background checks from a few countries on their citizens on board. There are a total of 14 nationalities on board.
The police also searched the homes of the two pilots - Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.
Observers have pointed to the pilots as possible key players in answering the mystery of the plane's disappearance, although police have told people not to jump to conclusions.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin confirmed that an internal communication system that automatically sends out data at intervals was turned off before someone in the cockpit said "All right, good night" to Malaysian air traffic control. This took place about 40 minutes after the plane took off.
Soon after that, the transponder, which communicates with air traffic control, was disabled before the plane turned back to fly over Peninsular Malaysia. It then headed north-west before disappearing.
The plane made satellite contact six times after that, with the last being at 8:11am on March 8. This, however, does not necessarily mean it was airborne as signals can be sent as long as its electrical systems are live. This would be almost eight hours after it took off from Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the plane carried enough fuel for 71/2 to eight hours. "The plane took off with the planned fuel; there is no additional fuel. That means fuel for the route and whatever additional we need for diversion," he said.
He also said the pilots had not requested to fly together. Nor did the plane carry hazardous goods.
Hishammuddin stressed that the case was unprecedented.
"What we are going through here is being monitored across the world, and it may change aviation history. I think there are lessons to be learnt by everybody," he said. — The Straits Times/ANN