KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian military believes the airliner missing for almost four days with 239 people on board flew for more than an hour after vanishing from air traffic control screens, changing course and travelling west over the Strait of Malacca, a senior military source said.
Malaysian authorities have previously said flight MH370 disappeared about an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for the Chinese capital Beijing.
At the time it was roughly midway between Malaysia’s east coast town of Kota Bharu and the southern tip of Vietnam, flying at 35,000 ft (10,670 metres).
“It changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude. It made it into the Malacca Strait,” the military official, who has been briefed on investigations, told Reuters.
The Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, runs along Malaysia’s west coast.
Earlier on Tuesday, Malaysia’s Berita Harian newspaper quoted air force chief Rodzali Daud as saying the Malaysia Airlines plane was last detected by military radar at 2:40 am on Saturday, near the island of Pulau Perak at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca. It was flying at a height of about 9,000 metres (29,500 ft), he was quoted as saying.
“The last time the flight was detected close to Pulau Perak, in the Melaka Straits, at 2.40 a.m. by the control tower before the signal was lost,” the paper quoted Rodzali as saying.
A non-military source familiar with the investigations said the report was being checked.
“This report is being investigated by the DCA (Department of Civil Aviation) and the search and rescue team,” the source said. “There are a lot of such reports.”
The time given by Rodzali was an hour and 10 minutes after the plane vanished from air traffic control screens over Igari waypoint, midway between Malaysia and Vietnam.
There was no word on what happened to the plane thereafter.
If the reports from the military are verified, it would mean the plane was able to maintain a cruising altitude and flew for about 500 km (350 miles) with its transponder and other tracking systems apparently switched off.
Malaysia has extended the massive search operation for the plane to the Malacca Strait after initially focusing on the South China Sea.
The fact that at least two passengers on board had used stolen passports, confirmed by Interpol, has raised suspicions of foul play. But Southeast Asia is known as a hub for false documents that are also used by smugglers, illegal migrants and asylum seekers.
Police chief Khalid said one of the men had been identified as a 19-year-old Iranian, who appeared to be an illegal immigrant. The identity of the other was still being checked.
“We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group, and we believe he was trying to migrate to Germany,” Khalid said of the teenager. His mother was waiting for him in Frankfurt and had been in contact with authorities, he said.
Asked if that meant he ruled out a hijack, Khalid said: “(We are giving) same weightage to all (possibilities) until we complete our investigations.”
Both men entered Malaysia on February 28, at least one from Phuket, in Thailand, eight days before boarding the flight to Beijing, Malaysian immigration chief Aloyah Mamat told the news conference. Both held onward reservations to Western Europe.
Police in Thailand, where the passports were stolen and the tickets used by the two men were booked, said they did not think they were linked to the disappearance of the plane.
“We haven’t ruled it out, but the weight of evidence we’re getting swings against the idea that these men are or were involved in terrorism,” Supachai Puikaewcome, chief of police in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, told Reuters.
About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew now presumed to have aboard the plane were Chinese. Other nationalities included 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.
China has deployed 10 satellites using high-resolution earth imaging capabilities, visible light imaging and other technologies to “support and assist in the search and rescue operations”, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said on Tuesday.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.
US planemaker Boeing has declined to comment beyond a brief statement saying it was monitoring the situation.