- Nine new reports of noise and light in sky near Malaysia-Thai border
- Eyewitnesses in villages reported sightings of plane low over the sea
- Search now focuses on Strait of Malacca and Andaman Sea
- Relatives in Beijing shout and throw bottles at Malaysian Airlines staff
- They demand: ‘Why is Malaysian military keeping what they know secret?’
A series of new eyewitnesses have told authorities in Malaysia that they saw Flight MH370 up to an hour after it disappeared from civilian radar screens – and in places which back up the theory that it made a u-turn.
The development lends weight to the belief that plane changed direction and may have plunged into the Stair of Malacca or the neighbouring Andaman Sea, where the search is now focused. Malaysian air force general Rodzali Daud said search and rescue efforts were now being expanded to the north of Malacca Strait, and that the possibility of a ‘turn back’ was being considered. But it came as Chinese relatives of the missing vented their frustration at Malaysian officials in Beijing, throwing water bottles and shouting: ‘Tell us the truth.’
Police in Malaysia disclosed that they had nine eyewitness reports of aircraft ‘noise and lights’ being seen in the north-east of the country, near the border with Thailand, after the plane’s last recorded sighting on civilian radar systems.
The new claims follow two earlier statements by a businessman and a fisherman that they had seen an aircraft’s lights low in the sky before they disappeared.
Deputy police commander Dak Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman said the eyewitnesses had reported that they saw an aircraft – possibly the missing jet – at about the time all civilian tracking data was lost with flight MH370 in the early hours of last Saturday.
The reports, from several towns and villages in the north east, said the aircraft was seen low over the sea. The towns included Kuala Besar, Pentai Cahaya Bulan, Pentai Senok and Penarik, all of which are on the coast of the South China Sea, which is south and west of where the plane was last seen.
‘Based on the reports, the plane, the plane was sighted between 1.30am and 1.45am,’ said commander Jalaluddin. ‘A bus driver, who gave his voluntary statement on Sunday, said he saw a low-flying plane at Penarik at about 1.45am the same day flight MH370 went missing. ‘The driver was sure that he saw the aircraft’s blinking beacon lights.’
From the Marang area, said the commander, eight villagers lodged police reports claiming they had heard a loud noise on Saturday night coming from the direction of Pulau Kapas. One of the villagers, Alias Salleh, 36, told The Star newspaper that he and some friends were on a bench about 400m from the Marang beach at 1.20am when they heard a loud and frightening noise which sounded like the fan of a jet engine.
‘The loud and frightening noise came from the north east of Pulau Kapas,’ said Mr Alias. ‘We looked around the Rhu Muda beach but did not see anything unusual.’
If the sightings are correct it would put the plane on course for the north of the Strait of Malacca, assuming it maintained a steady route.
That is where the main search and rescue operation is now concentrating on, according to Gen Daud. Gen Daud said that the search now included waters around Penang Island, at the north of the Malacca Strait.
The plane turning back ‘had not been ruled out’, he said.
He denied he had said that there had been a definite sighting of it on military radar, but did not deny that there was a sighting – only that he had said it himself. Meanwhile the country’s civilian aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said today: “There is a possibility of an air turn back. We are still investigating and looking at the radar readings,”.
On a day of confusion, Vietnam briefly scaled back the search off the southern coast, saying it was receiving scanty and confusing information from Malaysia. Hanoi later said the hunt – now in its fifth day – was back on in full force and was even extending on to land.
The confusion over where to look is adding to one of the most baffling mysteries in modern aviation mystery, and prolonging the agonising wait for hundreds of relatives of the missing. In Beijing, there was fury from families of the 239 people on board, who are desperate for any news. Relatives hurled water bottles at airline officials and accused them of lying.
At least three people threw water bottles at a meeting held between Malaysian airline and embassy officials and relatives of some of the 153 Chinese passengers who were on board.
At the meeting in Beijing, people shouted ‘tell us the truth’ and asked exactly what the Malaysian military knew about the missing plane. When officials refused to discuss exactly what was known, bottles were thrown and some relatives lunged towards the Malaysians.
The massive search operation involving ships and aircraft from 10 countries is spread out over the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, which lie between Malaysia and Vietnam, and in the Strait of Malacca into the Andaman Sea. China’s civil aviation chief said its air force would add two planes to the search effort, which would be broadened to include land areas. He did not elaborate.
The Indian Express said India, which controls the Andaman and Nicobar island chains and has a strong naval presence in the Andaman Sea, had been asked to help, but a defence ministry source said there had been no formal request from Malaysia. ‘They have to tell us the area where our people have to go, only then they move to that area,’ the source said. ‘It has to be clear, the clarity is not there at the moment.’
A senior military officer who had been briefed on the investigation told Reuters on Tuesday that the aircraft had made a detour to the west after communications with civilian authorities ended.
In the absence of any concrete evidence to explain the plane’s disappearance, authorities have not ruled out anything. Police have said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might shed light on the mystery, along with the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage or mechanical failure.
The airline said it was taking seriously a report by a South African woman who said the co-pilot of the missing plane had invited her and a female travelling companion to sit in the cockpit during a flight two years ago, in an apparent breach of security.
‘Malaysia Airlines has become aware of the allegations being made against First Officer Fariq Ab Hamid which we take very seriously. We are shocked by these allegations. We have not been able to confirm the validity of the pictures and videos of the alleged incident,’ the airline said in a statement.
The woman, Jonti Roos, said in an interview with Australia’s Channel Nine TV that she and her friend were invited to fly in the cockpit by Fariq and the pilot between Phuket, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur in December 2011. The TV channel showed pictures of the four apparently in a plane’s cockpit.
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. U.S. planemaker Boeing has declined to comment beyond a brief statement saying it was monitoring the situation.