Search for Malaysia Airlines flight widens as authorities defend handling of crisis
'We don't know where the aircraft is', admits acting transport minister
Malaysian authorities tonight said they were searching two vast areas of ocean for a missing Malaysian Airlines flight with 239 people on board, as the acting transport minister admitted: "We don't know where the aircraft is".
After a confusing day of speculation as to the flight path of the aircraft before it vanished from radar screens, Hishammuddin Hussein confirmed that searches were underway in both the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.
He said the operation was covering a total of 27,000 square nautical kilometres, involving 42 ships and 39 aircraft from a total of 12 countries.
"My heart reaches out to the families of the passengers," Hishammuddin said at a press conference. "We will not spare any effort to find the missing plane."
During a fiery press conference he rebuffed reporters' accusations that the search had been chaotic and that the government had no handle on the situation, despite mixed messages over the plane's whereabouts.
“We have been very transparent to the public and the media...there’s no confusion,” Hishammuddin said.
“It’s not a matter of chaos...it only seems confused if you want it to be seen so."
He added: "This is unprecedented (for us)” and “not something that is easy” to coordinate, given the size of the search area.
Civil Aviation Department director general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said he could not rule out the possibility that survivors would be found as the whereabout of the aircraft was unknown.
"We still have hope" of finding the 227 passengers and 12 crew alive, he said.
Mixed messages earlier today added further anguish for families awaiting news of loved ones, sparking accusations that the Malaysian search operation was a shambles.
Vietnam this morning briefly scaled down search operations in waters off its southern coast, saying it was receiving confusing information from Malaysia over the possible wherabouts of the aircraft.
Hanoi later said the search - now in its fifth day - was back on in full force and was even extending on to land.
China also said its air force had expanded its search area both above and below water, without specifying how the underwater search would take place.
China's Premier Li Keqiang urged rescuers to mobilise all possible resources in the hunt for the jet, while the country's foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang described the operation as "pretty chaotic".
Both the Malaysian military and the country's civil aviation authorities had previously said the plane may have deviated from its original route towards Vietnam.
Air force chief Rodzali Daud was last night quoted by the Berita Harian newspaper as saying the plane was last detected by military radar at 2.40am on Saturday, near the island of Pulau Perak at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, while a source told Reuters news agency that the aircraft had made a detour to the west and had indeed continued on to the Malacca Strait.
Rodzali later denied he had made the statement to the paper, further clouding the issue.
During the press conference Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said radar images appearing to show the plane leaving its flight path and heading to the Malacca Strait could have showed a different aircraft.
Further muddying the waters was a statement from a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam, who told the South China Morning Post that the Malaysian aviation authority had notified the Vietnamese shortly before the jet went missing that it had entered Vietnam's airspace.
"The Vietnamese authority then tried to get in touch with the missing plane, but received no response from the plane. The Vietnamese authority immediately told the Malaysian authority that it could not contact the plane," the spokesman said.
Watch: No idea where to look: the hunt for MH370 continues as mystery deepens
Aviation and counter-terrorism expert Chris Yates said: "If [the aircraft] diverted from its original flight plan and took a routing to the west to the Strait of Malacca, [it] may have been subject to a hijack."
Meanwhile, China deployed two military jets from Sanya, Hainan province, yesterday to join the search, adding to four warships and four civilian vessels already mobilised.
Watch: What we know about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
Chinese nationals made up the majority of passengers on the ill-fated flight with 153, including one infant and one Hongkonger.
Yesterday, the identities of two passengers on the flight who were travelling with stolen passports were revealed by Interpol as Pouri Nour Mohammadi, 19, and 29-year-old Delavar Seyed Mohammadreza.
Both men had initially travelled from Doha in Qatar to Kuala Lumpur last month with valid Iranian passports, said Interpol secretary-general Ronald Noble.
But when they boarded flight 370, the Iranian teenager was carrying a stolen Austrian passport belonging to a man named Christian Kozel, while the other man used a stolen Italian passport bearing the name Luigi Maraldi.
Earlier reports had indicated five suspect passport-holders on the flight but Noble said the other three passports had been cleared. "We continue to work with our member countries to follow all leads, and examine all options, including terrorism, organised crime and illegal movement of people," he said.
Vietnam's vice-transport minister, Pham Quy Tieu, pledged to expand the search area to 20,000 square kilometres of the waters in the eastern and northeastern part of Vietnam.
Reporting by Phila Siu in Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam; Danny Lee, Lana Lam, Sijia Jiang