Malaysia yesterday launched a terror probe into the disappearance of a passenger jet carrying 239 people, investigating suspect passengers who boarded with stolen passports, as relatives begged for news of their loved ones.
The US sent the FBI to investigate after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished from the radar early on Saturday somewhere at sea between Malaysia and Vietnam, but stressed that there was no evidence of terrorism yet.
Malaysian authorities also expanded their search for wreckage to the country’s west coast, asking Indonesia for help. Searches had so far concentrated on waters to the country’s east, in the South China Sea.
A total of 40 ships and 22 aircraft from an array of countries, including China and the US, are now involved in the hunt for the plane across the two areas, officials said.
“There is a distinct possibility the airplane did a turn-back, deviating from the course,” Royal Malaysian Air Force Chief General Rodzali Daud said, citing radar data.
However, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the Boeing 777’s systems would have set off alarm bells.
“When there is an air turn-back, the pilot would be unable to proceed as planned,” he said, adding that authorities were “quite puzzled” by the situation.
After it emerged that two people boarded the flight with stolen European passports, Malaysian Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein said he was looking at four suspect passengers in all.
He declined to offer details, saying authorities were examining “the entire manifest,” but confirmed the FBI was dispatching personnel to Malaysia.
“At the same time, our own intelligence has been activated, and of course, the counter-terrorism units ... from all the relevant countries have been informed,” Hishammuddin said, refusing also to rule out a hijacking.
A Malaysian civil aviation official said authorities still believe only two passengers had used stolen passports and were examining CCTV footage of them.
Flight MH370 relayed no distress signal, indications of rough weather, or other signs of trouble. Both Malaysia’s national carrier and the Boeing 777-200 model used on the route are known for their solid safety records.
The flight went missing about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing. A total of 153 Chinese nationals were on board, and relatives camped out at the main international airport in Beijing bemoaned the lack of news.
“The airline company didn’t contact me, it was a friend,” a middle-aged woman surnamed Nan told reporters, holding back tears, after finding out her brother-in-law was on the flight.
“I can’t understand the airline company. They should have contacted the families first thing,” she said.