KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia faced a storm of criticism Wednesday over contradictions and information gaps in the hunt for a missing airliner with 239 people on board, as the search zone dramatically veered far from the intended flight path.
Efforts to locate Malaysia Airlines flight 370, involving the navies and air forces of multiple nations, had focused on Vietnam’s South China Sea coast where it last made contact Saturday on a journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But Malaysian authorities said they were now expanding the search to the Andaman Sea north of Indonesia, hundreds of kilometres (miles) away, in a decision that added to a sense of a chaotic lack of coordination.
“We are not going to leave any chance. We have to look at every possibility,” civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman told AFP, confirming the new search but not specifying whether it was based on any firm sign the plane might be there.
Authorities had earlier expanded the zone to the Malacca Strait off Malaysia’s west coast after citing radar data they said indicated a “possibility” the plane may have changed course from its intended flight path.
The shifts have fuelled perceptions that Malaysian authorities are unable to handle a crisis on this scale, and infuriated relatives gathered in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur as they endure an unbearable wait for news of their loved ones.
Malaysia’s ambassador to China, Iskandar Sarudin, reportedly told relatives of some of the 153 Chinese passengers on board the plane that “now is not the time” to reveal what information the military may have on its route.
Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper also said he revealed that the last radio transmission from the cockpit before it switched from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace was “Alright, good night”.
– ‘Total incompetence’ –
Analysts said there were burning questions over what information — if any — Malaysia has gleaned from both military and civilian radar, and the Boeing 777’s transponders, and over discounted reports it was later detected near Indonesia.
“It’s bad enough for a wide-body jet to go missing with 239 people on board, but then for the responsible country’s government and aviation agencies to handle the associated information with total incompetence is unforgivable,” said David Learmount from industry magazine Flightglobal.
“There are so many information sources that do not appear to have been used effectively in this case. As a result the families of the missing passengers and crew are being kept in the dark,” said Learmount, Flightglobal’s operations and safety editor.
Frustrations boiled over in Malaysia, with the country’s active social media and some press outlets turning from sympathy for the families of relatives to anger over the fruitless search.
“The mood among Malaysians now is moving from patience … to embarrassment and anger over discrepancies about passengers, offloaded baggage and concealed information about its last known position,” Malaysian Insider, a leading news portal, said in a commentary.
Twitter users took aim at the web of contradictory information that has fuelled conspiracy theories.
“If the Malaysian military did not see MH370 turn toward the Malacca Strait, then why the search? Who decided to look there and why?” one comment said.
The anger was compounded by a report aired on Australian television of a past cockpit security breach involving the co-pilot of the missing jet.
Malaysia Airlines said it was “shocked” over allegations that First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, along with a fellow pilot violated airline rules in 2011 by allowing two young South African women into their cockpit during a flight.
– Vietnam suspends air search –
Vietnam, whose southern coast had been the focus of the recovery effort, said it had suspended its air search and scaled back sea operations as it waited for Malaysia to clarify the new direction of the hunt.
“We’ve asked Malaysian authorities twice, but so far they have not replied to us,” deputy minister of transport Pham Quy Tieu said, when asked about a media report that the plane had been detected over the Malacca Strait.
Malaysia’s air force said it had not ruled out the possibility the Boeing inexplicably changed course, but denied a report in a Malaysian daily that it had been detected in the Malacca Strait, far from its planned flight path.
“For the time being, it would not be appropriate… to issue any official conclusions as to the aircraft’s flight path until a high amount of certainty and verification is achieved,” Air Force chief General Rodzali Daud said in a statement.
The search zone shift is the latest twist in the mystery surrounding the plane. On Tuesday, Malaysian authorities said two men travelling on stolen passports appeared to be Iranian illegal immigrants — easing fears of terrorism.
Malaysia’s national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar has said his officers are not ruling anything out but were now focusing on a possible hijacking, sabotage, or psychological or personal problems among passengers or crew.