|New Search Area Suggests Missing Plane Flew Off Course|
|By DAN GOOD (@DGood73) and BEN GITTLESON (@bgittleson)||Mar 11, 2014, 4:42 AM|
Malaysia has extended the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner hundreds of miles to the west of the plane's normal course, officials told ABC News today.
The search for MH370 had been concentrated in the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and Vietnam because the plane with 239 people aboard had been bound for China and the last contact with the plane was just off Malaysia's east coast, officials had said.
According to a senior U.S. official, American authorities were informed by Malaysian officials Monday that they have information suggesting the plane went west. The reason for the possible turn was not known. Consequently, the search area has been expanded to include west coast of Malaysia.
Malaysia Airlines said search and rescue teams "have expanded the scope beyond the flight path to the West Peninsula of Malaysia at the Straits of Malacca." An earlier statement had said the western coast of Malaysia was "now the focus," but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight. "The search is on both sides," Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said.
For the jetliner to reach the west coast of Malaysia, it would have to travel more than 300 miles off course.
The airline says the pilots didn't send any distress signals and radio any change of course.
The news of the expanded search came as officials identified the two passengers who boarded the plane with stolen passports as a pair of Iranian men. But the resolution of the stolen passports appeared to downplay any connection to terrorism in the plane's disappearance.
Malaysian Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the first man, named Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, was likely trying to enter Germany to seek asylum. His mother contacted authorities after he didn't arrive in Frankfurt. Interpol later identified the other man as Delavar Syed Mohammad Reza, 29.
An image from Interpol showed the two men boarding a plane at the same time. Interpol secretary general Ronald K. Noble said today the two men traveled to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then apparently switched to the stolen Austrian and Italian documents.
Noble said the recent information about the men made terrorism a less likely cause of the plane's disappearance on March 8.
The announcements appeared to only compound the mystery of the plane's disappearance.
U.S. authorities said they have run the identities of the Iranian men who traveled on MH370 using stolen passports through available terrorism and criminal databases and have come up with no hits on either of the two men.
Khalid said investigators had not ruled out any possibility, including hijacking, sabotage or a personal motive to down the plane by either the crew or passengers. He also said that the police "had no prior information or intelligence about any involvement of terrorists."
The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, on the western coast of Malaysia, early Saturday en route to Beijing. It flew overland across Malaysia and crossed the eastern coast into the Gulf of Thailand before disappearing from radar screens.
Authorities are looking at a possibility that MH370 attempted to turn back toward Kuala Lumpur. If it did indeed retrace its path, the plane could conceivably have crashed into the sea on the western coast, the other side of Malaysia from where it was reported missing. But this doesn't explain why it did not continue to show on radar while flying back toward Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia Airlines or other authorities have not addressed that question.
"All angles are being looked at. We are not ruling out any possibilities," is all that the Malaysia Airlines statement said.
Malaysia's air force chief also said Sunday there were indications on military radar that the jet may have done a U-turn.
Potential clues discovered during the search have failed to bring authorities closer to the missing plane. Samples from an oil slick – as well as an orange object spotted floating in the ocean – had nothing to do with the plane wreckage, authorities said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.