Malaysia jet mystery deepens as oil, debris links ruled out

Mystery deepened on Monday (10/03/2014) over the fate of a Malaysian jet carrying 239 people, as tests on oil slicks scotched suspicions it was aircraft fuel while the search for debris failed to yield any trace of the missing aircraft.

Laboratory analysis of the oil samples showed they were not from the Malaysia Airlines jet but were a type of fuel used by ships, the Maritime Enforcement Agency said in Kuala Lumpur.

The area became a focus for frantic international search efforts for the Boeing 777 after the large tongues of oil were found in the water on Saturday, hours after the plane dropped off the radar.

In a day of conflicting information which deepened relatives’ anguish, initial reports of debris off southern Vietnam were ruled out, before an aircraft spotted another object which appeared to be a life raft.

Malaysia said it was sending ships to investigate the raft sighting, but a Vietnamese vessel that got there first found only flotsam in the busy shipping lane.

“When we reached the site we recovered only a mouldy cable reel cover,” Vietnamese army deputy chief of staff Vo Vo Tuan told AFP.

“I think there was only one suspect floating object there,” he said, conceding the amount of rubbish floating in the sea made it hard to be “100 percent sure” the ship had reached the location of the reported raft.

Anger mounted amid a scramble for answers, and China – which had 153 of its nationals on board – said Malaysia needed to “step up” its efforts after authorities admitted they were mystified by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370.

Beijing’s state media lashed out at Malaysia and MAS over their handling of the crisis that began when the jet vanished early Saturday an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.

“The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities,” the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, wrote in a scathing editorial. “The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough.”

Malaysia has launched a terror probe after at least two of the passengers on board the plane were found to have travelled on stolen passports. The country’s police chief said Monday one of them had been identified, but gave no further details.

Malaysia’s head of civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, had few answers to the burning questions surrounding the plane’s fate. Asked whether it was possible the plane had been hijacked or disintegrated mid-air, he said nothing could be ruled out.

“We are looking at every angle. We are looking at every aspect of what could have happened,” he said.

“This unprecedented missing aircraft mystery – it is mystifying and we are increasing our efforts to do what we have to do.”

At a Beijing hotel, Malaysian embassy officials were processing visa applications for families wanting to take up an offer from MAS to travel to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the rescue operations.

Scores of relatives made their way into the room, some in groups of five or six, clutching handkerchiefs and wiping away tears from their faces.

Others said they would not go. “There is more we can do here in China,” one woman told AFP. “They haven’t even found the plane yet.”

A team of Chinese officials from government ministries headed for Malaysia on Monday, tasked with investigating the incident and helping family members already there.

As the search entered a third full day, other families of missing passengers gathered at a hotel in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, sharing breakfast as they stared intently at television news bulletins.

The search effort in the morning zeroed in on waters off the remote Vietnamese island of Tho Chu, near where the two large oil slicks and debris were spotted on the weekend.

As part of the search effort involving several countries and dozens of planes and ships, mostly in the South China Sea, Malaysian authorities said they were also combing waters closer to their shores, further south of Tho Chu.

Malaysian officials have said there was a possibility that MH370 may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur.

The plane, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.

Questions have also swirled over how the two passengers boarded the jet on stolen passports, sparking an investigation into possible links with terrorism and a probe into the sale of passports in Thailand – where the documents were stolen over the past two years.

Two European names – Christian Kozel, an Austrian, and Luigi Maraldi of Italy – were listed on the passenger list, but neither man boarded the plane.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told AFP that the man identified as using one of the passports is a non-Malaysian who was identified using airport video surveillance.

Home Minister Zahid Hamidi reportedly said Sunday that the two passengers who used the passports looked Asian in appearance.

“I am still puzzled how come (immigration officers) cannot think: an Italian and Austrian but with Asian facial features,” he was quoted as saying by Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama.

The United States has sent an FBI team to help investigate the passengers, but US officials stressed there was as yet no evidence of terrorism.

Malaysia Airlines shares lost 20 percent at one point Monday as the market reacted to the jet’s disappearance, although clawed back most of those losses to close down 4.0 percent.

The incident is a serious blow for the carrier, which has haemorrhaged cash for several years amid mounting competition from low-cost rivals such as AirAsia. – AFP


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