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Radar Blips Baffle Officials in Malaysian Jet Inquiry


SEPANG, Malaysia — The authorities in Malaysia acknowledged Wednesday that they had detected radar signals showing what could be the country’s missing airliner veering sharply off course and hundreds of miles away from its last known position but failed to disclose the data for four days even as they struggled to interpret it.

Officials said they had given the radar data to American investigators who would assist in helping to determine whether the radar blips were likely to have come from the missing Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

“Today we are still not sure that it is the same aircraft,” Hishammuddin Hussein, the country’s defense minister, told reporters. “That is why we are searching in two areas.”

Malaysian officials previously said they had evidence that the plane had possibly attempted to “turn back,” but they had not detailed the extent of military radar records until Wednesday. A Malaysian newspaper article on Tuesday reported the existence of military radar data, but the air force had described that as “misreporting.”

On Wednesday, the head of the air force, Gen. Rodzali Daud, said the radar blips, of which there were several, had disappeared from screens at 2:15 a.m., about 90 minutes after Flight 370 took off.

The last radar return was 200 miles northwest of the Malaysian island of Penang, General Rodzali said, putting the plane in the eastern approaches of the Indian Ocean.

He said the data suggested that the aircraft was flying at “flight level 295,” which in aeronautical jargon translates as 29,500 feet. The search continued on the eastern side of the Malaysian Peninsula on Wednesday, underlining the uncertainty over the disappearance. Two United States destroyers, the Kidd and the Pinckney, continued their patrols with ships from China, Malaysia and Vietnam, among other countries. With so many ships and aircraft on patrol in that confined area, United States helicopters were going over areas they had already searched.

“The Gulf of Thailand is pretty much saturated at this point,” said Cmdr. William Marks, the spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. “We’re now going over the same areas.”

As criticism has mounted of the Malaysian authorities’ inability to find any trace of the jet, officials have repeatedly insisted that they are doing their best to solve the mystery of the flight, with scarce data and almost no precedent. Yet the government and the airline have also released imprecise, incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, with civilian officials sometimes contradicting military leaders. On Tuesday, three days after the plane disappeared while on an overnight flight to Beijing, General Rodzali was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper as saying the military received signals on Saturday that after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it turned from heading northeast to heading west, lowered its altitude and flew hundreds of miles across Peninsular Malaysia and out over the Strait of Malacca before the tracking went blank.

The air force chief did not say what kind of signals the military had tracked. But his remarks raised questions about whether the military had noticed the plane as it flew across the country, and about when it informed civilian authorities.

According to the general’s account, the aircraft was near Pulau Perak, an island more than 100 miles off the western shore of the Malaysian peninsula, when the last sign of it was recorded at 2:40 a.m. Saturday.

As anger and confusion mounted, General Rodzali issued a statement late Tuesday denying some details of the newspaper account, but he also said that the Air Force was analyzing possibilities of the missing jet’s flight path and that “it would not be appropriate” to reach conclusions.

The assertion that the plane might have flown into the Strait of Malacca stunned aviation experts as well as people in China, who had been told again and again that the authorities lost contact with the plane more than an hour earlier, when it was on course over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the peninsula. But the new account seemed to fit with the decision on Monday, previously unexplained, to expand the search area to include waters west of the peninsula.

Most of the aircraft’s 227 passengers were Chinese, and the new account prompted an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media sites. “Malaysia, how could you hide something this big until now?” said one posting on Weibo, a service similar to Twitter. On Wednesday, The Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid, said that “information issued publicly from Malaysia had been extraordinarily chaotic.”

David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector, said the Malaysian government seemed evasive and confused, and he questioned why, if the remarks attributed to General Daud were true, the government took so long to reveal evidence about a westward flight path.

“The relatives of the people who’ve gone missing are being deprived of information about what’s happened to the airplane — that for me is the issue,” he said. “If somebody knows something and isn’t telling, that’s not nice under the circumstances.”

Adding to the confusion, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said in a telephone interview that he had checked with senior military officials, who told him there was no evidence that the plane had recrossed the Malaysian peninsula, only that it may have attempted to turn back.

“As far as they know, except for the air turn-back, there is no new development,” Mr. Tengku Sariffuddin, adding that the reported remarks by the air force chief were “not true.” Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, offered a third account. In a statement, the airline said authorities were “looking at a possibility” that the plane had turned around to head for Subang, an airport outside Kuala Lumpur that handles mainly domestic flights.

So far only the basic facts of the first 40 minutes of Flight 370 are well established. The plane, a Boeing 777, left Kuala Lumpur’s main international airport about 12:40 a.m. local time with 239 people aboard, bound for Beijing. By 1:21 it was about midway between the Malaysian peninsula and the southern coast of Vietnam, cruising at 35,000 feet in good weather under a moonless sky, when the transponder on the plane stopped transmitting data to Flightradar24, a global tracking system for commercial aircraft. Malaysia Airlines has said that ground controllers had their last radio communication with the pilots about 1:30 a.m., but it has not given a precise time.

Without specifying why, the Malaysian authorities vastly expanded the search area to the west on Monday, implying that they believed there was a strong chance the plane had traveled there. No similar expansion was made to the east or the south.

If the flight traveled west over Peninsular Malaysia, as the air force chief was quoted saying, it would have flown very close to one of Flightradar’s beacons in the city of Kota Bharu. But Mikael Robertsson, the co-founder of Flightradar24, said the jet never sent a signal to that receiver, which means that if the plane did fly that way, its transponder had either been knocked out of service by damage or had been shut down.

“We see every aircraft that flies over there, even if it’s very, very low, so if it flew over there, the transponder was off,” he said. A pilot can turn off the transponder, Mr. Robertsson said, and the fact that the last contact from the transponder and the last radio contact with the pilots came at roughly the same time suggests that that is what happened. “I guess to me it sounds like they were turned off deliberately,” he said.

Mr. Robertsson said that since the plane had been fully fueled for a trip to Beijing, it could have traveled a great distance beyond its last reported position. “The aircraft could have continued another five or six hours out into the ocean,” he said. “It could have gone to India.” Malaysian officials said they have not ruled out any possible explanation for the airplane’s disappearance — not mechanical failure, pilot error, crew malfeasance, hijacking, terrorism or anything else. The absence of physical evidence from the aircraft or even knowledge of its location left plenty of scope for speculation, including questions about two men who boarded the plane using stolen passports and one-way tickets bought in Thailand. Interpol officials said on Tuesday that it appeared most likely that the two men were illegal migrants with no link to terrorism.

In Washington, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John O. Brennan, said on Tuesday that the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the Transportation Security Administration were all trying to learn more about the plane’s disappearance.

“Our Malaysian counterparts are doing everything they can to try to put together the pieces here, but clearly there’s still a mystery, which is very disturbing,” Mr. Brennan said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations. Asked about terrorism as a potential cause, he said: “I wouldn’t rule it out. Not at all.”

The Malaysian government’s inconsistencies in the handling of the crisis were further highlighted Tuesday when the country’s chief of police said there had been no baggage removed from the aircraft before takeoff, contradicting what officials had said for the past three days. Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police, said previous reports by Malaysian officials that five passengers had failed to board the flight and that their baggage had been removed were false. “Everybody that booked the flight boarded the plane,” he said. But Malaysia Airlines later issued a clarification, saying that there were four passengers who booked tickets on the flight but failed to check in at the airport or check any bags for the flight.

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