Search for vanished Malaysia jet widens as frustrations grow

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KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – The desperate search for a Malaysian jet which vanished carrying 239 people was significantly expanded on Monday with frustrations mounting over the failure to find any trace of the plane.

The initial zone spread over a 50 nautical miles (92 kilometres) radius around the point where flight MH370 disappeared over the South China Sea in the early hours of Saturday morning, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Malaysian authorities announced it was doubling the size of the search area to 100 nautical miles.

“The area of search has been expanded in the South China Sea,” Civil Aviation Department chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman told reporters late Monday.

He also confirmed the search area covers land on the Malaysian peninsula itself, the waters off its west coast and an area to the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The huge area now being covered reflects authorities’ bafflement over the disappearance of the flight, with 40 ships and more than 30 planes finding no sign of it.

- Anger in China -

Emotions are running high as Beijing blamed Kuala Lumpur for a lack of information, while tearful relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers aboard voiced frustration with all sides of the response effort.

China said Malaysia needed to “step up” its efforts after authorities admitted they were mystified.

“The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities,” the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, wrote in a scathing editorial. “The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough.”

A day of conflicting information deepened relatives’ anguish, 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 proving to be false alarms.

Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department said that a pilot on a flight from the southern Chinese city to Kuala Lumpur had reported seeing “large debris” while flying over Vietnamese waters in the latest sighting to be investigated.

- Terror probe -

Malaysia has launched a terror probe after at least two of the passengers on board the plane were found to have travelled on stolen passports.

Two European names — Christian Kozel, an Austrian, and Luigi Maraldi of 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 the passengers, but US officials stressed there was as yet no evidence of terrorism.

Malaysia’s police chief said Monday one of the passengers travelling with a stolen passport had been identified, but gave no further details.

Azharuddin said that the two men were not of Asian appearance, contrary to previous reports.

But he had few answers to the burning questions over the missing plane.

Asked whether it was possible the plane had been hijacked or disintegrated mid-air, he said nothing could be ruled out.

“We are looking at every aspect of what could have happened,” he said.

“This unprecedented missing aircraft mystery — it is mystifying and we are increasing our efforts to do what we have to do.”

- Relatives wait -

At a Beijing hotel, Malaysian embassy officials were processing visa applications for families wanting to take up an offer from MAS to travel to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the rescue operations.

Scores of relatives made their way into the room, some in groups of five or six, clutching handkerchiefs and wiping away tears from their faces.

Others said they would not go. “There is more we can do here in China,” one woman told AFP. “They haven’t even found the plane yet.”

A team of Chinese officials from government ministries headed for Malaysia on Monday, tasked with investigating the incident and helping family members already there.

As the search entered a third full day, other families of missing passengers gathered at a hotel in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, sharing breakfast as they stared intently at television news bulletins.

Malaysian officials have said there was a possibility that MH370 may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur.

The plane, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.

Malaysia Airlines shares lost 18 percent at one point Monday as the market reacted to the jet’s disappearance, although clawed back most of those losses to close down 4.0 percent.

The incident is a serious blow for the carrier, which has haemorrhaged cash for several years amid mounting competition from low-cost rivals such as AirAsia.

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