KUALA LUMPUR: Intelligence checks on the 153 Chinese passengers aboard a missing Malaysian airliner produced no red flags, China said on Tuesday, as investigators struggled to clarify events that led to the plane’s dramatic disappearance.
Eleven days after contact was lost with Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew, there has been minimal progress in determining what transpired when the Boeing 777 was deliberately diverted off its flight path and where it might have gone.
Two thirds of those on board were Chinese, and Malaysia had asked the authorities in Beijing to run an exhaustive background check on all their nationals.
Particular attention had been paid to one passenger from China’s Muslim ethnic Uighur minority, separatist elements of which have become increasingly militant in their struggle against Chinese rule.
On Tuesday, China’s ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang said no evidence had been found that would link anyone to a possible hijacking or terrorist attack on the jet, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Huang also said China had begun searching for the aircraft in its own territory but gave no further details.
The potential search area, which was only properly identified after a week of fruitlessly scouring the South China Sea, is enormous — stretching from the depths of the southern Indian Ocean, up and over the Himalaya and into central Asia.
China’s state media has been vocally critical of Malaysia’s handling of the missing plane investigation, saying valuable time and resources were wasted in the hours and days immediately after the aircraft disappeared on March 8.
On Monday, Premier Li Keqiang asked his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak to provide more detailed information about the missing flight “in a timely, accurate and comprehensive manner”.
Malaysian officials insist they are investigating all the passengers and crew, but for the moment the focus is clearly on the two pilots — Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid.
On Monday the head of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, revealed that initial investigations indicated the last recorded words from the cockpit — “All right, good night” — were spoken by the co-pilot, Fariq.
Identifying the voice had been deemed crucial because officials initially said the words were spoken after one of the Boeing’s two automated signalling systems — Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) — had been manually disabled.
But Ahmad Jauhari contradicted that chronology, saying that the ACARS could have been switched off before or after Fariq spoke.
It could even have been disabled at the same time as the plane’s transponder, which might possibly point back towards a general mechanical malfunction rather than human intervention.
The confusion is likely to fuel frustration with Malaysia’s investigation, which has repeatedly stumbled in presenting contradictory information.
According to unidentified US officials cited by the New York Times on Tuesday, investigators believe the first turn the plane made away from its intended flight path was not effected manually but by a computer system that was most likely programmed by a person in the cockpit.
Use of the Flight Management System, which directs the plane from point to point according to the pre-submitted flight plan, would reinforce the theory that the plane was deliberately diverted by one of the pilots.
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