Police hunt for motive as search for jet goes on
Updated: 2014-03-17 05:13
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KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian investigators are trawling through the backgrounds of the pilots, crew and ground staff who worked on a missing jetliner for clues as to why someone on board flew it perhaps thousands of miles off course, the country's police chief said.(China Daily reporter visited homes of pilots)
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No trace of the Boeing 777-200ER has been found since it vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board, but investigators believe it was diverted by someone who knew how to switch off its communications and tracking systems.
Malaysia briefed envoys from nearly two dozen nations and appealed for international help in the search for the plane along two arcs stretching from the shores of Caspian Sea to the far south of the Indian Ocean.
"The search area has been significantly expanded," said Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. "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."
The plane's disappearance has baffled investigators and aviation experts. It vanished from civilian air traffic control screens off Malaysia's east coast less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.
Malaysian authorities believe that as the plane crossed the country's northeast coast and flew across the Gulf of Thailand, someone on board shut off its communications systems and turned sharply to the west.
Electronic signals it continued to exchange periodically with satellites suggest it could have continued flying for nearly seven hours after flying out of range of Malaysian military radar off the country's northwest coast, heading towards India.
The plane had enough fuel to fly for about seven-and-a-half to eight hours, Malaysian Airlines' Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.
Malaysian officials briefed ambassadors from 22 countries on the progress of the investigation and appealed for international cooperation, diplomats said on Sunday.
Although countries have been coordinating individually, the broad formal request marked a new diplomatic phase in a search operation thought increasingly likely to rely on the sharing of sensitive material such as military radar data.
"The meeting was for us to know exactly what is happening and what sort of help they need. It is more for them to tell us, 'please put in all your resources'," T.S. Tirumurti, India's high commissioner to Malaysia, told Reuters.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also telephoned his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, to ask for Indian help corroborating possible paths taken by the jet, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
PILOTS' HOMES SEARCHED
On Saturday, police special branch officers searched the homes of the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid, in middle-class suburbs of Kuala Lumpur close to the international airport.
An experienced pilot, Zaharie has been described by current and former co-workers as a flying enthusiast who spent his off days operating a life-sized flight simulator he had set up at home.
Police chief Khalid said investigators had taken the flight simulator for examination by experts.
Earlier, a senior police official said the flight simulator programmes were closely examined, adding they appeared to be normal ones that allow players to practice flying and landing in different conditions.
Police sources said they were looking at the personal, political and religious backgrounds of both pilots and the other crew members. Khalid said ground support staff who might have worked on the plane were also being investigated.
A second senior police official told Reuters investigators had found no links between Zaharie, a father of three grown-up children and a grandfather, and any militant group.
Postings on his Facebook page suggest the pilot was a politically active opponent of the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for the 57 years since independence.
A day before the plane vanished, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to five years in prison, in a ruling his supporters and international human rights groups say was politically influenced.
Asked if Zaharie's background as an opposition supporter was being examined, the first senior police officer would say only: "We need to cover all our bases."
Malaysia Airlines has said it did not believe Zaharie would have sabotaged the plane, and colleagues were incredulous.
"Please, let them find the aircraft first. Zaharie is not suicidal, not a political fanatic as some foreign media are saying," a Malaysia Airlines pilot who is close to Zaharie told Reuters. "Is it wrong for anyone to have an opinion about politics?"
Co-pilot Fariq was religious and serious about his career, family and friends said.
The two pilots had not made any request to fly together.
MH370 is not the first aircraft that has disappeared without a trace.
Tension mounted as the search for the missing Malaysian airplane continued.