, KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 16 – The multi nation search for a missing Malaysian airliner focused on two vast, and vastly contrasting, areas on Sunday after Malaysia said it believed the aircraft was deliberately diverted, triggering a full blown criminal investigation.
Saturday’s startling revelations that the Boeing 777’s communications systems had been manually switched off before the jet veered westward and flew on for hours raised more perplexing and deeply troubling questions about the fate of the plane and its 239 passengers and crew.
“Who? Why? Where?” ran the front page headline of the Malaysian government-controlled New Straits Times.
Briefing the press on Saturday, Prime Minister Najib Razak declined to use the word hijack, but said the new data suggesting a “deliberate action” by someone on board meant investigators had “refocused their investigation into crew and passengers”.
For anguished relatives, the news was a double edged sword holding out the slim hope that hijackers had landed the plane somewhere, while ushering in another agonizing open-ended waiting period.
Relatives of Bob and Cathy Lawton, a missing Australian couple, said they were horrified by the notion of a drawn out hijack ordeal.
– What did they put up with? –
“That’s one of the worst things I could have hoped for,” Bob’s brother David Lawton told News Limited newspapers.
“Even if they are alive, what did they have to put up with?”
He said the family was struggling to come to terms with the idea that the couple might never come home and trying not to lose hope.
“We have hopes and dreams that something might come, but at the moment we just don’t know. It’s all up in the air.”
The scope for speculation is as broad as the new search area that stretches from Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean.
Expert opinion that disabling the communications system required specialist knowledge of the Boeing 777 has intensified scrutiny of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and his First Officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid.
Scott Hamilton, managing director of US based aerospace consultancy Leeham Co, said Najib’s refusal to confirm a hijacking was telling.
“It sounded to me that the pilots haven’t been ruled out. He was saying don’t focus only on hijackers,” Hamilton said.
Malaysian media reported that investigators had gone to the homes of both pilots on Saturday, although police refused to confirm.