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Malaysia Airliner search intensifies, hopes fade

The mysteries surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the true identities of some of its passengers, are as deep as the South China Sea waters a multinational search team is canvassing for the jet.

One promising lead has turned out to be a dead end. A “strange object” spotted by a Singaporean search plane late Sunday afternoon is not debris from the missing jetliner, a U.S. official familiar with the issue told CNN on Sunday.

A U.S. reconnaissance plane “thought it saw something like debris but it was a false alarm,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

By the end of the day Sunday, more than 40 planes and more than two dozen ships from several countries were involved in the search. Two reconnaissance aircraft from Australia, and one plane and five sea vessels from Indonesia were the latest additions, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the director general of civil aviation in Malaysia, told reporters Sunday. In addition, the Chinese navy dispatched a frigate and an amphibious landing ship, according to a online post by China’s navy. Those ships are expected to arrive on site Monday morning (Sunday night ET).

Those reinforcements join the rescue teams already scouring the South China Sea, near the Gulf of Thailand, on Sunday for any sign of where the flight, operated by Malaysia’s flagship airline, might have gone down, Malaysian authorities said.

The area in focus, about 90 miles south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island, is where a Vietnamese search plane reportedly spotted oil slicks that stretched between 6 and 9 miles.

Malaysian authorities have not yet confirmed the report of the oil slicks, which came from Vietnam’s official news agency.

Big questions far outweigh the few fragments of information that have emerged about the plane’s disappearance.

What happened to the plane? Why was no distress signal issued? Who exactly was aboard?

The flight may have changed course and turned back toward Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian military officials said at a news conference Sunday.

But the pilot appears to have given no signal to authorities that he was turning around, the officials said, attributing the change of course to indications from radar data.

As the search continues, the agonizing wait goes on for relatives of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board the plane.

Among the passengers, there were 154 people from China or Taiwan; 38 Malaysians, and three U.S. citizens. Five of the passengers were younger than 5 years old.

Two people who traveled on the missing passenger jet, using the stolen passports of an Italian and an Austrian citizen, appear to have bought their tickets together.

The tickets were bought from China Southern Airlines in Thailand’s baht currency at identical prices, according to China’s official e-ticket verification system Travelsky. The ticket numbers are contiguous, which indicates the tickets were issued together.

Here’s where the mystery deepens: Italy and Austria have said that none of their citizens were on board the plane. And officials say the Italian and Austrian whose names were on the passenger manifest both had their passports stolen in Southeast Asia in recent years.

The two tickets booked with China Southern Airlines both start in Kuala Lumpur, flying to Beijing, and then onward to Amsterdam. The Italian passport’s ticket continues to Copenhagen, the Austrian’s to Frankfurt.

Authorities say they are investigating the identities of some of those on board who appear to have issues with their passports.

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