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Military radar showed missing jet hundreds of miles off course

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Updated: March 11, 2014 1:27PM



KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Malaysian military has radar data showing the missing Boeing 777 jetliner changed course and made it to the Malacca Strait, hundreds of miles from the last position recorded by civilian authorities, according to a senior military official.

The development injects more mystery into the investigation of the disappearance of Saturday’s flight, and raises questions about why the aircraft was not transmitting signals detectable by civilian radar.

Local newspaper Berita Harian quoted Malaysian air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying radar at a military base had detected the airliner at 2:40 a.m. near Pulau Perak at the northern approach to the strait, a busy waterway that separates the western coast of Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

“After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he was quoted as saying.

A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed the report and also said the plane was believed to be flying low. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Authorities had earlier said the plane, which took off at 12:20 a.m. and was headed to Beijing, may have attempted to turn back to Kuala Lumpur, but they expressed surprise that it would do so without informing ground control.

The search for the plane was initially focused on waters between the eastern coast of Malaysia and Vietnam, the position where aviation authorities last tracked it. No trace of the plane, which was carrying 239 people, has been found by than 40 planes and ships from at least 10 nations searching the area.

Earlier Tuesday, law enforcement officials said two men traveling with stolen passports on the flight were Iranians who had bought tickets to Europe and were probably not terrorists. Police said both men bought their tickets in Thailand and entered Malaysia together.

The airline says the pilots did not send any distress signals, suggesting a sudden and possibly catastrophic incident. Speculation has ranged widely about possible causes, including pilot error, plane malfunction, hijacking and terrorism.

News that two of the passengers were traveling with stolen passports immediately fueled speculation of foul play. However, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference Tuesday that investigators had determined one was a 19-year-old Iranian, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, and that it seemed likely that he was planning to migrate to Germany.

“We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said.

Interpol identified the second man as a 29-year-old Iranian and released an image of the two boarding a plane 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.

He said speculation of terrorism appeared to be dying down “as the belief becomes more certain that these two individuals were probably not terrorists.”

Khalid said the 19-year-old man’s mother was waiting for him in Frankfurt and had been in contact with police. He said she contacted Malaysian authorities to inform them of her concern when her son didn’t get in touch with her.

He also said there was no truth to a statement by at least one other government official that five passengers had checked in for the flight but never boarded the airplane.

The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, on the western coast of Malaysia, early Saturday en route to Beijing. It flew across Malaysia into the Gulf of Thailand at 35,000 feet and then disappeared from civilian radar screens.

Authorities have said the plane may have attempted to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur.

The hunt began on Saturday near the plane’s last known location. But with no debris found there, the search has been systematically expanded to include areas the plane could have reached with the fuel it had on board. That is a vast area in which to locate something as small as a piece of an aircraft.

Malaysia Airlines said search and rescue teams have expanded the scope beyond the flight path to the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia’s western coast and Indonesia’s Sumatra island — the opposite side of Malaysia from its last known location.

An earlier statement said the western coast of Malaysia was “now the focus,” but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight.

“The search is on both sides,” Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.

China, where two-thirds of the passengers are from, urged Malaysian authorities on Tuesday to “speed up the efforts” to find the plane. It has sent four ships, with another four on the way.

A shopping mall in Beijing suspended advertising on its large outdoor LED screen to display a search timer — an image of an airplane along with a digital clock marking the time since contact with the flight was lost.

Assuming the plane crashed into the ocean or disintegrated in midair, there will likely still be debris floating in the ocean, but it may be widely spread out, and much may have already sunk. In past disasters, it has taken days or longer to find wreckage.

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

Vietnamese planes and ships are also taking part.

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

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



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