KUALA LUMPUR: Dozens of ships and aircraft from multiple nations scoured an expanded swathe of Southeast Asia Tuesday for any sign of a Malaysian jet that vanished with 239 people on board, as frustration mounted over the baffling disappearance.
Authorities had announced late Monday they were doubling the search radius to 100 nautical miles (equivalent to 185 kilometres) around the point where Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared from radar over the South China Sea early Saturday, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
China, which had 153 of its nationals on board the plane, said it would harness 10 satellites equipped with high-resolution imaging to help, as Boeing said it was joining a US government team to figure out what happened to its 777-200 plane.
The vast stretch under consideration reflects authorities´ puzzlement over the disappearance of the aircraft, with 40 ships and more than 30 planes finding no sign of it on the fourth day of searching.
Malaysian authorities and airline officials have come under fire from China for their inability to provide any indication of what happened, and for a string of contradictory statements.
But a Malaysia Airlines (MAS) statement stressed: “We are as anxious as the families to know the status of their loved ones.”
The search sphere now includes land on the Malaysian peninsula itself, the waters off its west coast, and an area to the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. That covers an area far removed from the scheduled route of MAS flight MH370, which officials say may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur.
Hapless authorities and airline officials have held a number of press conferences since the drama erupted but have had no answer for the most burning questions over whether the plane exploded, ditched in the sea, was hijacked, or any number of other scenarios.
The plane, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.
Vietnam asked fishing boats off its southern coast — where the flight dropped off radar — for help in the effort but said it feared the worst.
“In terms of our assessments and predictions – we have little hope of a positive outcome,” Pham Quy Tieu, deputy minister of transport, said Tuesday.
– ´Emotional breakdown´ –
Emotions were running high after China´s state media blamed Kuala Lumpur for a lack of information. Tearful relatives of the missing Chinese passengers voiced frustration, while clinging to fading hopes.
“I hope it is a hijacking, then there will be some hope that my young cousin has survived,” a man in his 20s surnamed Su said in Beijing.
“My uncle and aunt had an emotional breakdown, they are not eating, drinking and sleeping.”
On Monday, conflicting information deepened the anguish of relatives, with tests on oil slicks in the South China Sea showing they were not from the Boeing 777 and reports of possible debris from the flight also proving to be false alarms.
Malaysian embassy officials have been processing visa applications for Chinese families wanting to take up an offer from MAS to travel to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the operation.
A team of Chinese officials from government ministries came to Malaysia, tasked with investigating the incident and helping family members already there.
Malaysia has launched a terror probe after at least two of the passengers were found to have travelled on stolen passports. Two European names from Austria and Italy were listed on the passenger list, but neither man boarded the plane.
Both had their passports stolen in Thailand in the last two years and questions swirled over how the two passengers using their documents managed to board the flight. The United States has sent an FBI team to help investigate, but US officials stressed there was as yet no evidence of terrorism.
On Monday, the US Navy sent a second ship to the South China Sea to help in the search.
Malaysia´s police chief said one of the passengers had been identified, but gave no further details.
Civil aviation boss Azharuddin Abdul Rahman — who has called the episode an “unprecedented missing aircraft mystery” — on Monday denied another official´s earlier claim that CCTV footage indicated the men were of Asian appearance.
But he sparked social media ridicule for evoking Ghanaian-born footballer Mario Balotelli — an Italian citizen — in arguing that skin colour is no indication of nationality.
One Twitter user responded by saying: “Nice work in looking for the least obvious cause for an airplane crash.” (AFP)