Malaysia criticised over handling of missing jet crisis

Indian officials said that Malaysia has asked for its assistance in searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines jet, widening the search to an area near the Andaman Sea.

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KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysia denied on Wednesday that the hunt for a missing jet was in disarray, after the search veered far from the planned route and China said that conflicting information about its course was “pretty chaotic”.

Transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia would “never give up hope” of finding the plane’s 239 passengers and crew, dismissing allegations that efforts were mired in confusion after a series of false alarms, rumours and contradictory statements.

“I don’t think so. It’s far from it. It’s only confusion if you want it to be seen as confusion,” he said at a press conference, where military and civilian officials faced a grilling from a combative crowd of journalists.

“I think it’s not a matter of chaos. There are a lot of speculations (sic) that we have answered in the last few days,” he said.

The hunt for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 now encompasses over 90,000 square kilometres — roughly the size of Portugal — and involves the navies and air forces of multiple nations.

The search focus had been on an area off Vietnam’s South China Sea coast, where it last made contact Saturday on a journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

But Malaysian authorities said on Wednesday they were expanding it to the Andaman Sea, north of Indonesia, hundreds of kilometres away.

“So right now there is a lot of information, and it’s pretty chaotic, so up to this point we too have had difficulty confirming whether it is accurate or not,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said of accounts of the jet’s course. There were 153 Chinese nationals on the flight.

India’s coastguard joined the aerial search off the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands Wednesday and the Indian Air Force was put on standby.

Malaysian air force chief General Rodzali Daud attempted to explain why the search zone had been expanded, telling the press conference that military radar detected an unidentified object early Saturday north of the Malacca Strait off Malaysia’s west coast.

He said that the reading, taken less than an hour after the plane lost contact over the South China Sea, was still being investigated and they were not able to confirm it was MH370.

The confusion has fuelled perceptions that Malaysian authorities are unable to handle a crisis on this scale, and infuriated relatives.

Analysts said there were burning questions over what information — if any — Malaysia has gleaned from both military and civilian radar, and the Boeing 777’s transponders, and over discounted reports it was later detected near Indonesia.

“It’s bad enough for a widebody jet to go missing with 239 people on board, but then for the responsible country’s government and aviation agencies to handle the associated information with total incompetence is unforgivable,” said David Learmount from industry magazine Flightglobal.

“There are so many information sources that do not appear to have been used effectively in this case. As a result the families of the missing passengers and crew are being kept in the dark,” said Learmount, Flightglobal’s operations and safety editor.

One new detail did emerge — the words of MH370’s final radio transmission.

Malaysia’s ambassador to China, Iskandar Sarudin, said one of the pilots said “alright, good night” as the flight switched from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace, according to Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, later confirmed that those were the last words from the cockpit.

Frustrations boiled over in Malaysia, with the country’s active social media and some press outlets turning from sympathy for the families of relatives to anger over the fruitless search.

“The mood among Malaysians now is moving from patience... to embarrassment and anger over discrepancies about passengers, offloaded baggage and concealed information about its last known position,” Malaysian Insider, a leading news portal, said in a commentary.

Twitter users took aim at the web of contradictory information that has fuelled conspiracy theories.

“If the Malaysian military did not see MH370 turn toward the Malacca Strait, then why the search? Who decided to look there and why?” one comment said.

The anger was compounded by a report aired on Australian television of a past cockpit security breach involving the co-pilot of the missing jet.

Malaysia Airlines said it was “shocked” over allegations that First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, along with a fellow pilot violated airline rules in 2011 by allowing two young South African women into their cockpit during a flight.

Vietnam initially suspended its air and sea search Wednesday as it waited for Malaysia to clarify the new direction of the hunt.

Army deputy chief of staff Vo Van Tuan said that after Malaysia had denied reports the plane was picked up on radar in the Malacca Strait “we decided to send two aircrafts and nine boats to search”.

* Agence France-Presse