- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Conflicting reports about the actual flight path of a Malaysian airliner before it vanished Saturday added to the mystery and confusion about its disappearance Tuesday as authorities widened the search for the missing jumbo jet.

Malaysian officials said the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, changed course and had reached the Strait of Malacca before it disappeared.

The strait is hundreds of miles west of the plane’s takeoff point and far from its scheduled route.

Malaysian authorities widened the search area for the plane to include the Strait of Malacca. The airliner, which was carrying 239 people, vanished without a trace at an altitude of 35,000 feet. An international search crew is scouring 12,500 square miles of ocean.

According to the Kuala Lumpur newspaper Berita Harian, air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud said radar had tracked the jetliner as it changed course early Saturday — then, hours later the general denied making the comments.

In the original report, Gen. Daud said radar indicated the plane was approaching the strait at an altitude of about 29,500 feet.

The developments suggest confusion at the highest level over where the plane might be.

A military official who was briefed on the search told the Reuters news agency that the plane changed course after passing the Malaysian city of Kota Bharu, where local media also have reported sightings of a low-flying aircraft.

“It changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude. It made it into the Malacca strait,” the official told Reuters.

Meanwhile, officials said that two passengers traveling with stolen passports on the missing plane were Iranian men who were believed to be trying to migrate to Europe.

That revelation eased terrorism fears, with Malaysian authorities now focusing on other leads, including pilot or crew suicide, a hijacking or sabotage.

“Other than mechanical problems, these are the main areas of concern,” Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar of the Royal Malaysian Police said Tuesday.

He added that Malaysian police are examining video footage taken at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where the doomed plane took off, and studying the behavioral patterns of all the passengers.

“Maybe somebody on the flight has bought a huge sum of insurance, who wants the family to gain from it or somebody who has owed somebody so much money, you know, we are looking at all possibilities,” Inspector Abu Bakar said.

Malaysian Civil Aviation Chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said that expanding the search area doesn’t imply that authorities believe the plane was off the western coast.

“The search is on both sides,” he said Tuesday in a press conference.

CIA Director John O. Brennan said Tuesday that intelligence officials could not rule out terrorism in the jumbo jet’s disappearance.

“You cannot discount any theory,” Mr. Brennan said during a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington.

However, the international police agency Interpol downplayed the probability of an act of terrorism.

“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble told reporters Tuesday.

“The focus of the world right now and of law enforcement … should be on trying to find the plane and hopefully find survivors, as difficult as they might be to believe that might occur, and to helping support the investigation on the ground,” he said of the passengers aboard.

Malaysian authorities are leading the investigation, and Mr. Brennan said the CIA is monitoring the situation.

The FBI, which stations agents known as legal attaches in U.S. embassies, has been in touch with those agents in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, where the missing flight was supposed to have landed.

The FBI has not sent a special team to the area, as no official crime has been committed and it hasn’t been asked by local authorities to do so.

Other U.S. agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, have sent officials to Kuala Lumpur to assist the investigation if needed, as has Boeing.

A U.S.-based satellite imagining company started a crowdsourcing effort to help authorities search for the jumbo jet. DigitalGlobe, which operates commercial imaging satellites, has made available high-resolution images of the projected crash area on its website TomNod.com and is encouraging volunteers look through the images to help find clues.

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