Scrutiny turns to all on missing plane

Los Angeles TimesMarch 15, 2014 

— Like an Agatha Christie whodunit, the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is now focusing on a finite circle of suspects – the 227 passengers and 12 crew members of the missing plane.

While reluctant to call it a hijacking, Malaysian officials now say they believe somebody inside the plane with expertise in the navigational and communications systems of the Boeing 777 diverted it. The plane was then flown for as long as seven hours toward an unknown point far from its scheduled route of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, officials said.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia said Saturday afternoon that he would seek the help of governments across a large expanse of Asia in the search for the Boeing 777, which has been missing for a week. The Malaysian authorities released a map showing that the last satellite signal received from the plane had been sent from a point somewhere along one of two arcs spanning large distances across Asia.

“In view of this latest development, Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” Razak said at a news conference Saturday.

Among those who are coming under investigation is pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The 53-year-old Zaharie is one of the airline’s most seasoned pilots, described by Malaysian newspapers as an “aviation geek” who owned a flight simulator at home and flew remote-control airplanes and helicopters as a hobby.

As part of the investigation, police officers were seen Saturday going to Zaharie’s home in a gated compound, and the Malaysian news media reported that a search had taken place. A spokeswoman for the Royal Malaysian Police would neither confirm nor deny the reports but said there would be a news conference Sunday.

Co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, with the airline since 2007, has already been the subject of speculation because of an incident in 2011 in which he invited two young South African women into the cockpit during a flight, and according to the women, flirted, smoked cigarettes and posed for photographs.

Since the airliner vanished, investigators have been looking at the backgrounds of two passengers traveling on stolen passports. Both are young Iranian men. Pouria Nour Mohammed Mehrdad, 19, was booked through to Frankfurt, Germany, and his mother was waiting for him there. Delavar Seyed Mohammed Reza, 29, boarded the flight with Mehrdad, according to CCTV footage later made public, but had been booked to Copenhagen.

Investigators have said the two have no known links to terror organizations and appeared to be economic migrants trying to reach Western Europe.

From victims to suspects

Now, the rest of those on the flight are coming under scrutiny, transformed from victims to potential suspects.

“It is important to profile all the passengers and crew. All the countries whose nationals were on that flight have to participate in the investigation so that they can narrow it down to who is responsible,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism expert. “It is very likely that more than one person was responsible and that there were others on the ground responsible as well.”

The largest number of passengers, 159, are Chinese nationals, and most of the rest are Malaysians, with a few Ukrainians, Indians, Indonesians, Australians and three Americans. Expatriate Philip Wood, 51, worked for IBM, and the two other Americans have been described as toddlers.

Among the Chinese are a group of artists and calligraphers returning home from an exhibition in Malaysia celebrating the “Chinese Dream.” One of them is Maimaitijiang Abula, a 35-year-old ethnic Uighur from Kashgar in western China. He’s been singled out for special attention by the Malaysian press because of the fears of violence surrounding the Uighur separatist movement in China. Some reports incorrectly identified him as an electrical engineer.

Flight zigzagged

Malaysian and U.S. investigators have said that whoever diverted the airplane was familiar with its navigational and communications systems. The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System and transponder were both switched off within 50 minutes of takeoff – suspiciously, at a location between Vietnam and Malaysia where radar coverage is spotty.

Investigators say that the flight not only deviated from its planned route, but zigzagged in a way that might have been designed to evade detection. Initially headed northeast toward Beijing, it then turned west over the Malacca Strait before turning again toward the Indian Ocean.

Flight 370 took off at 12:20 a.m. March 8 and disappeared about 1:30 a.m., Malaysian authorities say; however, satellites picked up signals from the flight until 8:11 a.m., which is also about the time it would have run out of fuel.

At his news conference in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur, Najib said investigators were focusing their search now on two air traffic corridors – a southern one heading from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean toward Australia; the other a northern corridor that would have taken the flight toward Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

“Due to the type of satellite data, we are unable to confirm the precise location of the plane when it last made contact with the satellite,” Najib said.

Aviation experts believe, however, it is unlikely that the plane headed northward because it likely would have been picked up by India’s land-based primary radar systems or those of other countries along the route, including Thailand and Myanmar.

“A Boeing 777 would always be picked up on primary radar coverage. It is not like a stealth bomber,” said Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of FlightRadar24, which tracks about 120,000 airline flights per day, in a telephone interview from Sweden. “If it flew over land, some country would have seen it on the radar. It is more likely it flew over water where it went undetected.”

Investigating all possibilities

In his statements, the Malaysian prime minister belatedly confirmed what U.S. intelligence has been suggesting for days – that the flight’s disappearance was the result of a deliberate act – a theory that Malaysia has been dismissing for much of the past week. The prime minister, however, declined to characterize the incident as a hijacking.

“Despite media reports that the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear we are still investigating all possibilities for what led Malaysian Air flight 370 to deviate from its flight path,” he said.

Malaysia’s announcement on Saturday came after days of fruitless searches along the flight path. At the last count, there were 14 nations participating in the search, deploying 43 ships and 58 aircraft.

State-run media in China, which sent a fleet of eight ships to search for the missing plane, reacted furiously to the belated acknowledgement by Malaysia of apparent foul play.

“Given today’s technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner,” the Xinhua news agency complained in an editorial. “And due to the absence – or at least lack – of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families.”

New York Times contributed.

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