KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – A missing Malaysian airliner was apparently deliberately diverted and flown for hours after vanishing from radar, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday, stopping short of confirming a hijack but taking the “excruciating” jet drama into uncharted new territory.
Najib said investigators believed “with a high degree of certainty” that Malaysia Airlines flight 370′s communications systems including its transponders were manually switched off.
He said the plane also veered westward in a fashion “consistent with deliberate action” after dropping off primary radar.
But a grave-looking Najib told a highly anticipated press conference watched around the globe that he could not confirm rising suspicions that the plane had been forcibly taken over.
“Despite media reports that the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear: we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate from its original flight path,” he said.
“We realise this is an excruciating time for the families of those on board,” Najib said. He did not take questions.
The investigation data appeared to cast aside a host of theories attempting to explain the plane’s disappearance, which has transfixed the world and left the families of the 239 passengers and crew distraught, enraged and baying for information that authorities have not been able to provide.
Previous theories swirling around MH370 included a sudden mid-air explosion, catastrophic equipment or structural failure, or a crash into the South China Sea.
At the same time, the announcement opened a whole new avenue of speculation including an attempted 9/11-style attack, enhancing the intrigue surrounding one of the biggest enigmas in modern aviation history.
The 9/11 hijackers turned off the transponders of three of the four planes that were commandeered. Transponders transmit data on a plane’s location to air traffic controllers.
Final satellite communication with the Boeing 777, scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, came more than six-and-a-half hours after it vanished from civilian radar at 1:30am on March 8, Najib said.
That is around the time Malaysia Airlines has said the plane would have run out of fuel.
Najib said investigators had concluded the plane was indeed diverted to the west from its original flight path, and as a result search operations in the South China Sea were being called off.
But the new search zone is impossibly large — Najib said the plane could be anywhere from Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean.
Earlier, a senior Malaysian military official had told AFP that investigators believe the plane was commandeered by a “skilled, competent and current pilot” who knew how to avoid radar.
The official stopped short of specifying whether a hijacker or member of the crew was suspected.
-’Something beyond 9/11′-
As the search for the plane continues, investigators will focus on who would have diverted it and why.
Malaysian security officials were already embarrassed by revelations that two Iranian men had managed to board the plane using stolen European passports.
It could also bring new attention on Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.
Malaysian reporters told AFP they witnessed police enter Zaharie’s house on Saturday. They said police spent two hours there. Police declined comment to AFP.
An Australian television station had days earlier broadcast an interview with a young South African woman who alleged Fariq and another pilot colleague invited them into the cockpit of a flight he co-piloted in 2011 — a breach of post-9/11 security rules.
Gerry Soejatman, a Jakarta-based independent aviation analyst, told AFP the new information makes a motive in a possible terror conspiracy “extremely difficult to understand.”
“If that was deliberate, we may be dealing with something beyond the mission planning for 9/11,” he said.
Dozens of ships and aircraft from 14 countries have been deployed across the entire search zone since MH370 went missing.
-’A conspiracy from the beginning’-
The Malaysian leader’s remarks did little to ease the nerves of anguished relatives gathered at a hotel in Beijing. Most passengers were Chinese.
“I feel (Malaysia Airlines) has been playing a role in the incident,” said Wen Wancheng, whose son was aboard.
“I feel the incident has been a conspiracy and a deal from the beginning,” he said, adding he still maintains hope his son is alive.
Malaysia Airlines defended its handling of the crisis, saying it has “shared all available information with the relevent authorities”.
“This is truly an unprecedented situation, for Malaysia Airlines and for the entire aviation industry,” it said in a statement.
Even with attention now firmly on the Indian Ocean, the search parameters pose enormous logistical challenges in locating the plane or its black box.
“Wind and sea conditions are definitely going to play a very big part if there is wreckage and if it happens to be in the Indian Ocean. It is an immense area,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor for aviation industry magazine FlightGlobal.
The plane has one of the best safety records of any jet, and the airline also has a solid record.
Malaysia has not been the target of any notable terror attacks, but terror analysts say it is home to several individuals alleged to be operatives of militant Islamic groups such as the Al-Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiyah.