Malaysia says the number of countries searching for a missing airliner has nearly doubled to 25 as a full-scale criminal probe into its disappearance got under way, with particular scrutiny of the pilots.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Sunday the number of participating countries had jumped from 14 to 25 as the search for the aircraft focused on two vast, and quite contrasting, land and ocean transport corridors.
The dramatic “re-calibration” would inevitably bring “new challenges of coordination and diplomacy”, the minister said.
Police said they had searched the homes of both pilots and examined the captain’s home flight simulator after it became increasingly clear that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished March 8 had been deliberately diverted by someone on board.
Hishammuddin cautioned people against “jumping to conclusions” about the thrust of the investigation, which national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar stressed was covering “all” the 239 passengers and crew.
Engineers who may have had contact with the aircraft before take-off were also being looked at, Khalid said.
The police action followed Saturday’s startling revelations that the plane’s communications systems had been manually switched off before the jet veered westward and flew on for hours.
Like Prime Minister Najib Razak the previous day, Hishammuddin refused to use the word hijack, saying only that the pattern of events was consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane.
The new search parameters involve two possible flight corridors – a northern one stretching from Thailand to Kazakhstan and a southern one from Indonesia towards the southern Indian Ocean.
The Malaysian foreign ministry briefed representatives from 22 countries on Sunday, including the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. It requested support in the form of satellite and radar data.
For anguished relatives, the news the plane had been diverted was a double-edged sword – holding out the slim hope that hijackers had landed the plane somewhere, while ushering in another agonising open-ended waiting period.
Relatives of Bob and Cathy Lawton, a missing Australian couple, said they were horrified by the notion of a drawn-out hijack ordeal.
“That’s one of the worst things I could have hoped for,” Bob’s brother David Lawton told News Limited newspapers.
“Even if they are alive, what did they have to put up with?”
The scope for speculation is as broad as the new search area.
Experts said it would have taken specialist knowledge to disable the communications system, intensifying scrutiny of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his First Officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid.
Friends and colleagues of both pilots have testified to their good character. But questions have been raised over the simulator Zaharie installed at home – even though aviation commentators have said this is not uncommon.
Fariq’s record was queried after a woman said he had allowed her and a friend to ride in the cockpit of an earlier flight.
Hishammuddin noted that the two pilots did not ask to fly together on the missing plane.
The alternative scenario – that the cockpit was taken over or the pilots coerced – opens a Pandora’s Box of possibilities as to who might be involved and why.
Two passengers who boarded the plane with stolen EU passports have been identified as Iranians by Interpol, who said they were most likely illegal immigrants who did not fit terrorist profiles.
The fact that most of the passengers on board the Beijing-bound flight were Chinese has raised speculation of involvement by militants from China’s Muslim ethnic Uighur minority.
Security experts warned against reading too much into partial data.
“We still really don’t have a lot of evidence to go on,” said Anthony Brickhouse, a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators.
“We don’t have any wreckage, we don’t have the plane itself, we don’t have a lot of electronic data from the aircraft.”
The last satellite communication from the plane on March 8 came nearly eight hours after it took off – around the time the airline has said it would have run out of fuel.
Hishammuddin said both search corridors were being treated “with equal importance”. But a number of analysts said the southern ocean route was more likely.
Flying along the northern corridor would have required the plane to travel undetected through numerous national airspaces in a strategically sensitive region.
“I just can’t think of a scenario where this aircraft is sitting on a runway somewhere,” said Brickhouse.
Scott Hamilton, managing director of US-based aerospace consultancy Leehman Co, said a crash in the ocean would present a daunting search and recovery challenge.
“Any floating debris will be widely dispersed and the main debris on the sea floor,” he said.