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CNN Exclusive: Analysis shows 2nd possible Indian Ocean path for airliner

Indian search teams are combing large areas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a remote archipelago in the northeast Indian Ocean. Two aircraft are searching land and coastal areas of the island chain from north to south, an Indian military spokesman said Friday, and two coastguard ships have been diverted to search along the islands east coast.

New twist in missing Malaysian plane mystery raises prospect of foul play

By Chico Harlan, Ashley Halsey III and Scott Wilson
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A search for a missing Malaysian airliner with 239 people on board is getting a potential boost from a satellite communications company, which announced Friday that it had registered signals from the plane after it took off from the Malaysian capital six days ago.

With the mystery of the plane's disappearance continuing to baffle and frustrate a growing corps of search teams, investigators and outside aviation experts, inquiries increasingly are focusing on the prospect of foul play.

"The facts are all over the place," a U.S. official told The Washington Post. "It's looking less and less like an accident. It's looking more like a criminal event." The official asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

Reuters news agency reported Friday that investigators now suspect the flight was following a commonly used route between navigational waypoints when it was last spotted by military radar off Malaysia's northwestern coast early Saturday — a course heading toward India over the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal that indicated the plane was being flown by someone with aviation training.

"What we can say is we are looking at sabotage, with hijack still on the cards," the agency quoted an unidentified senior Malaysian police official as saying.

Inmarsat, a British company that provides global mobile satellite telecommunications services, said in a statement Friday: "Routine, automated signals were registered on the Inmarsat network from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 during its flight from Kuala Lumpur." It said the information was provided to its partner, SITA, a European information technology company that serves the air transport industry, and that SITA "in turn has shared it with Malaysia Airlines."

The cryptic announcement did not provide any clues on where the missing Boeing 777 might have gone or how long it might have flown. But The New York Times quoted an Inmarsat vice president, David Coiley, as saying the company had recording electronic "keep alive" ping signals that could be analyzed to help estimate the plane's location.

Word of the signal transmissions came as the search was rapidly expanding from the relatively shallow waters around Malaysia into the much deeper Indian Ocean, based on signs that the plane flew westward well after disappearing from civilian radar early Saturday.

Malaysian authorities said Friday that the search has no clear leads, but they said U.S. investigators were trying to determine the plane's whereabouts from potential communication with a satellite. Senior U.S. officials said earlier that an onboard communication system sent signals for at least four hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 lost other forms of contact, an indication that the jet might have stayed in the air for that time.

If the plane followed a westward course after losing contact, it could have traveled toward India, the latest country to take a major role in the multi-nation search. A senior Indian official said Friday that a search team is focusing its efforts in the waters west of Malaysia based on coordinates provided by the Malaysian government. But he said he was not sure what data the Malaysians had that led them to target those areas.

Military radar-tracking evidence suggests that the plane was deliberately flown across the Malay Peninsula toward India's Andaman Islands, a sliver of isles south of Myanmar, also known as Burma, and hundreds of miles east of the Indian mainland, Reuters news agency reported Friday.

The fate of the plane remains unknown six days after it vanished less than an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. But aviation experts and U.S. officials increasingly suspect that the disappearance involved either sabotage or hijacking by crew members or a passenger with aviation training. Malaysia's acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said an investigation into the passengers and pilots was "ongoing," although the pilots' homes had not yet been searched.

Officials in Port Blair, the capital of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said they have told local fishermen and authorities to report any unusual finds. India's role, though, goes well beyond the islands. Captain D.K. Sharma, an Indian navy spokesman, said Malaysia has given India a massive search grid — some 13,500 square miles, an area about the size of Maryland.

The red-eye flight to Beijing lost contact early Saturday over the Gulf of Thailand — northeast of the Malay Peninsula. But a growing number of indicators, including a Malaysian military radar reading of an unidentified aircraft, suggest the plane might have veered west after cutting its transponders.

The search for the aircraft now involves 13 countries and more than 100 ships and aircraft. Hishammuddin emphasized Friday that the search was expanding not because of any particular leads, but because the initial, more targeted search had turned up no evidence or debris.

"A normal investigation becomes narrower with time," Hishammuddin said. "But this is not a normal investigation. We are looking further and further afield."

In a signal that U.S. officials believe the plane likely veered west, the U.S. Navy said Friday that one of its ships involved in the hunt, the destroyer USS Kidd, arrived in the northwestern section of the Strait of Malacca, on the western side of the Malay Peninsula, from the Gulf of Thailand to the northeast. A maritime surveillance aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, is scheduled to arrive in the region Saturday, Lt. David Levy, a U.S. Navy spokesman, said in an e-mail.

A Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft already in the area completed a search Friday of the northwestern section of the Malacca Strait, "where it flew approximately 1,000 miles west with nothing significant to report," Levy said.

One of the most important clues for investigators could come from messages sent by the plane and picked up by satellites. Though Malaysia Airlines says satellite-based communication stopped functioning some 40 minutes after takeoff, U.S. officials say some form of signaling continued for at least several additional hours, an indication that the plane remained in the air during that time.

Airlines are equipped with several reporting systems, including one known as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which helps planes maintain contact with ground stations using radio or satellite signals. In Washington, one senior administration official said Thursday that the signals came from that system. But other media reports said it was a separate data system operated by Boeing that continued to send "pings" — the result of trying to establish a satellite connection — well after traditional contact was lost.

According to the Associated Press, Malaysia Airlines did not subscribe to the Boeing-based service, but the plane continued to send standby signals.

Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Thursday that the last ACARS data were sent at 1:07 a.m., 14 minutes before the transponder signal was lost.

If the plane had suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, the various signals and communication links would have been severed simultaneously. Some experts say a pilot could have tampered with the transponder deliberately to avoid detection while rerouting the plane.

"There was a human intervention of some sort," said Bill Waldock, an air crash investigator and a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Now, why is the real question."

In India, Adm. Arun Prakash, a retired naval chief of staff who was posted in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said it was unlikely that military radar at two locations in the island chain would have yielded any valuable data. They are the only two radar stations in a chain of 576 islands, and they take in data on Indian airspace, not Strait of Malacca.

"We are assuming that the radars were on 24 hours," Prakash said. "These things cost money. They are machines. They rotate all day. This was in the middle of the night. If we had prior information, then maybe. It is unlikely that it was on for 24 hours."

He said it was "unlikely that the aircraft overflew Andaman and Nicobar."

The admiral said the Indian military was likely struggling with the sprawling search area, which may expand north into the Bay of Bengal at the request of the Malaysian navy. So far five Indian vessels and four aircraft have been deployed, with a fifth ship arriving Saturday.

"We need some definite location, a starting point to undertake the search of this nature," Prakash said. "So far, the information that has been made available to us is quite vague, even though the direction in which they say it flew falls within our jurisdiction. It is inadequate. We can keep searching till next year. It is like looking for a needle in the haystack. The plane is supposed to have flown for two to three hours. For all you know it could have reached Sri Lanka. It is a hit-and-miss situation for us."

The admiral said 1,000 Indian seamen were now taking part in the search.

"We are looking for little pieces that can float, pieces of human body, life jackets, seat cushions in that vast stretch. It is very difficult," he said. And there is a limit on how much manpower and money the Indian government will be able to expend, he said.

"All we have from Malaysia is 'we think we saw the aircraft heading in that general direction.' This by itself may not be worth searching for too long," Prakash said.

Malaysian authorities said they would not release any information until it had been corroborated and verified. "We have nothing to confirm at this moment," Hussein said at a news conference Friday in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said satellites did not receive any "distress signal" from the plane, but when asked whether it could have sent "pings," he said: "What the U.S. team are doing, they are trying their best to get whatever sources they can from the satellite system, to come up with possibilities of where the aircraft should be."

Malaysian authorities have said they are investigating all passengers and crew aboard, but they denied local media reports Thursday that they searched a home of one of the pilots.

A modern airplane sends information in a steady stream to its owner, the company that built it or the firm that built its engines. In the final minutes before Air France Flight 477 plunged into the Atlantic almost five years ago, it sent 29 automatic error messages to the airline's home base in France.

- - -

Halsey and Wilson reported from Washington. Washington Post staff writers Simon Denyer and William Wan in Beijing, Karla Adams in London, Annie Gowen and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi, and William Branigin and Ernesto Londoño in Washington contributed to this report.

Barbara Starr. Chelsea J. Carter and Jethro Mullen


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A classified intelligence analysis of electronic and satellite data suggests Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 likely crashed either in the Bay of Bengal or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, CNN learned Friday.

The analysis conducted by the United States and Malaysia governments may have narrowed the search area for the commercial jetliner that disappeared a week ago with 239 people on board.

If accurate, it would offer one of the first firm details about what happened to the airliner when it disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, leaving little trace of where it went or why.

The intelligence analysis was proof enough for the United States to move the USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer, into the Indian Ocean and Indian officials to expand its search effort into the Bay of Bengal.

The theory builds on earlier revelations by U.S. officials that an automated reporting system on the airliner was pinging satellites for hours after its last reported contact with air traffic controllers. Inmarsat, a satellite communications company, confirmed to CNN that automated signals were registered on its network.

An aviation industry source tells CNN that the flight's automated communications system appeared to be intact for up to five hours, because pings from the system were received after the transponder last emitted a signal.

Taken together, the data point toward speculation in a dark scenario in which someone took the plane for some unknown purpose, perhaps terrorism.

That theory is buoyed by a New York Times report that the Malaysia Airlines plane made several significant altitude changes after losing transponder contact.

Malaysian military radar showed the plane climb to 45,000 feet soon after disappearing from civilian radar screens, the newspaper reported, citing an unnamed person familiar with the data.

Then there's the theory that maybe Flight 370 landed in a remote Indian Ocean island chain.

The suggestion -- and it's only that at this point -- is based on analysis of radar data revealed Friday by Reuters suggesting that the plane wasn't just blindly flying northwest from Malaysia. Reuters, citing unidentified sources familiar with the investigation, reported that whoever was piloting the vanished jet was following navigational waypoints that would have taken the plane over the Andaman Islands.

The radar data don't show the plane over the Andaman Islands, but only on a known route that would take it there, Reuters cited its sources as saying.

The movie-plot theory seems more complicated and unlikely than one in which the plane -- its flight crew perhaps incapacitated -- simply flew on until it ran out of fuel or faced some other problem. But it's one that law enforcement has to check out, former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom said.

"You draw that arc, and you look at countries like Pakistan, you know, and you get into your 'Superman' novels, and you see the plane landing somewhere and (people) repurposing it for some dastardly deed down the road," he told CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday.

Aviation experts say it's possible, if highly unlikely, that someone could have hijacked and landed the giant Boeing 777 undetected.

The international airport in Port Blair, the regional capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, has a runway that is long enough to accommodate a 777, according to publicly available data.

But the region is highly militarized because of its strategic importance to India, Indian officials with knowledge of the operation tell CNN, making it an unlikely target for pirates trying to sneak in an enormous airplane with a wingspan of more than 200 feet.

Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle newspaper, says there's just nowhere to land such a big plane in his archipelago without attracting notice.

"There is no chance, no such chance, that any aircraft of this size can come towards Andaman and Nicobar Islands and land," he said.

The Malaysian government said Friday that it can't confirm the report.

And a senior U.S. official offered a conflicting account Thursday, telling CNN that "there is probably a significant likelihood" the plane is on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

The jetliner, with 239 people on board, disappeared a week ago as it flew between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Beijing. The flight has turned into one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history, befuddling industry experts and government officials. Authorities still don't know where the plane is or what caused it to vanish.

Suggestions of what happened have ranged from a catastrophic explosion to hijacking to pilot suicide.

Among the things being considered is whether lithium batteries in the cargo hold, which have been blamed in previous crashes, played a role in the disappearance, according to U.S. officials briefed on the latest developments in the investigation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release details to the media.

If the batteries being carried on the plane caused a fire, it still doesn't fully explain other anomalies with Flight 370, the officials say.

Details of the search

Malaysian officials, who are coordinating the search, said Friday that the hunt for the plane was spreading deeper into both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

India has deployed assets from its navy, coast guard and air force to the south Andaman Sea to take part the search, the country's Ministry of Defense said Friday.

Indian search teams are combing large areas of the archipelago. Two aircraft are searching land and coastal areas of the island chain from north to south, an Indian military spokesman said Friday, and two coast guard ships have been diverted to search along the islands' east coast. Indian officials are also including part of the Bay of Bengal in their search, officials said.

As of Friday, 57 ships and 48 aircraft from 13 countries were involved in the search, Hussein said.

China, which said it would be extending its search, said crews have searched more than 27,000 square miles (about 70,000 square kilometers) of the South China Sea without finding anything.

On Friday, the United States sent the destroyer USS Kidd to scout the Indian Ocean as the search expands into that body of water.

"I, like most of the world, really have never seen anything like this," Cmdr. William Marks of the U.S. 7th Fleet said of the scale of the search. "It's pretty incredible."

"It's a completely new game now," he said. "We went from a chess board to a football field."

Other developments

• "Seafloor event": Chinese researchers say they recorded a "seafloor event" in waters around Malaysia and Vietnam about an hour and a half after the missing plane's last known contact. The event was recorded in a non-seismic region about 116 kilometers (72 miles) northeast of the plane's last confirmed location, the University of Science and Technology of China said.

"Judging from the time and location of the two events, the seafloor event may have been caused by MH370 crashing into the sea," said a statement posted on the university's website.

However, U.S. Geological Survey earthquake scientist Harley Benz said Friday that the event appeared to be consistent with a naturally occurring 2.7-magnitude earthquake.

• Malaysian response: Authorities continued to defend their response to the crash. "A normal investigation becomes narrower with time, I understand, as new information focuses the search," Hishammuddin Hussein, the minister in charge of defense and transportation, said at a news briefing. "But this is not a normal investigation. In this case, the information we have forces us to look further and further afield."

However, Bob Francis, a former National Transportation Safety Board official, is one of several experts who have questioned how Malaysian authorities have handled the situation.

"The Malaysians are not doing a superb job of running this investigation," he said. "And they apparently give you some information, and then they withhold information. How much are they relying on and listening to the Europeans and the NTSB who are there with more expertise? I don't know, but I think you know we've got a mixture of a very strange situation that happens to be in an environment, a regulatory environment, that really isn't capable or isn't running an investigation the way it should be run."

Barbara Starr reported from Washington, Chelsea J. Carter wrote from Atlanta, and Jethro Mullen wrote from Hong Kong. CNN's Michael Pearson, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Mike M. Ahlers, Pamela Brown, Aaron Cooper, Brian Walker, Harmeet Shah Singh and Karen Chiu contributed to this report.

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