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[March 15, 2014]
Front: Latest theory: jet flew on for five hours with communications switched off: US official suggests 'act of piracy' on Malaysian jet Satellite signals hint at course towards islands
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Almost a week after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished, there was another extraordinary development in the story yesterday when it emerged that the aircraft could have flown on for a further five hours with its communications systems deliberately switched off.
With no trace of the plane or wreckage despite a huge international search, one US official close to the investigation told Associated Press that the pattern of transmissions sent from the jet after it dropped off the radar implied human intervention or "an act of piracy". The focus of the search operation shifted to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal yesterday.
Two communication systems appear to have stopped transmitting at different times after the plane left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, but further electronic signals were picked up by satellites after the last contact, which could be analysed to help estimate the location of the aircraft.
The signals, described as a series of hourly pings to the satellite, indicated the plane's communication system was still working, but not transmitting data. This supports theories that the plane's system was deliberately switched off.
The signals, provided by British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat, do not transmit location but can indicate a position and distance relative to the satellite, which could show a rough direction of travel over several hours. David Coiley of Inmarsat said any total absence of communication during normal aviation would be "a highly unusual situation". The Wall Street Journal quoted US officials who said these signals persisted for another five hours.
The White House last night refused to comment on suggestions that US officials believe there may have been "an act of piracy". Spokesman Jay Carney said: "This is a difficult and unusual situation and we are working hard in close collaboration with the Malaysian government to investigate a number of possible scenarios for what happened to the flight. Unfortunately, definitive conclusions still cannot be drawn at this time. I don't have conclusive answers. I don't think anyone has." The US navy said it had deployed a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft to scour the Bay of Bengal for debris. A spokesman said it would search a "much larger area . . . the southern portion of the Bay of Bengal and the northern portion of the Indian Ocean".
The USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer that has been searching the Malacca Strait, was moving further west, preparing to search the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. A P-3C Orion plane completed an aerial search of the northwest section of the Malacca Strait "where it flew approximately 1,000 miles west with nothing significant to report", according to the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Military radar evidence suggests the jet may have been deliberately flown west towards the Andaman Islands after it last made contact with air traffic control in the early hours of last Saturday. Sources told Reuters the flight path of an unidentified aircraft, believed to have been the MH370, followed a route with specific navigational waypoints, suggesting someone with aviation training was at the controls.
The last known position of MH370 was at 35,000ft roughly 90 miles off the east coast of Malaysia, as the plane, with 239 people on board, made its way towards Vietnam, en route to Beijing.
In a further indication that the plane was under piloted control, the New York Times reported that Malaysian military radar data showed the jet climbed to 45,000ft, above the approved altitude limit for a Boeing 777-200, soon after its last known position, after making a turn to the west. It said there were indications that MH370 descended to 23,000ft on the approach to Penang in Malaysia. Then came another turn, this time north-west on a trajectory that took it over the Malacca Strait and out towards the Indian Ocean. The military radar suggests the jet veered dramatically and deliberately westwards, heading north-east of Indonesia's Aceh province.
Malaysian military officials have previously confirmed that a plane that could have been MH370 was last seen on military radar 200 miles off Malaysia's west coast.
A senior Malaysian police official told Reuters: "What we can say is we are looking at sabotage, with hijack still on the cards." Two US officials told ABC News the jet's data reporting system was shut down at 1.07am, while the transponder - which sends back information to civilian radar regarding performance, location and altitude - was turned off at 1.21am.
The US has since moved surveillance planes into an area of the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles west of the Malayasian peninsula after a suggestion the plane may have crashed there. "We have an indication the plane went down in the Indian Ocean," a senior Pentagon official said.
Most of the leads on the potential location have come from unattributed US sources assisting the Malaysian investigation. Under international protocols, the country where the missing aircraft was registered must lead the investigation.
Malaysian police have spent the past week investigating whether any personal or psychological problems affecting the crew or passengers may have had a role in the disappearance, in addition to mechanical failure, hijacking or sabotage.
Yesterday's revelations that the plane may have flown towards the Andaman Islands are the first real indication of a sinister cause.
At a press conference yesterday, Malaysia's defence and acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said authorities were investigating the possibility that the plane's communications systems had been deliberately shut down.
Captions: Relatives of the missing passengers grieve in Beijing when no new leads are uncovered (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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