Nine days in, things have gotten a whole lot more difficult in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
“This is a significant recalibration of the search,” Malaysia’s acting Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Sunday. “The number of countries involved in the search and rescue operation has increased from 14 to 25, which brings new challenges of coordination and diplomacy to the search effort.”
The new developments come as U.S. intelligence officials are leaning toward the theory that “those in the cockpit” — the pilots of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — were responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the commercial jetliner, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest thinking told CNN.
The official emphasized no final conclusions have been drawn and all the internal intelligence discussions are based on preliminary assessments of what is known to date.
Other scenarios could still emerge. The notion of a hijacking has not been ruled out, the official said Saturday.
The Boeing 777-200 ER disappeared on March 8, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The airline’s CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Sunday the missing passenger jet took off with its normal amount of fuel needed for the route, and did not have extra fuel on board that could have extended its range.
A study of the flight’s cargo manifest showed there were no dangerous materials on board that concerned investigators, he told reporters.
Investigators are still looking into the backgrounds of the passengers to see if any of them were trained pilots.
“There are still a few countries who have yet to respond to our request for a background check,” said Khalid Abu Bakar, inspector general of the Royal Malaysian Police Force. “But there are a few … foreign intelligence agencies who have cleared all the(ir) passengers.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters on Saturday that the plane veered off course due to apparent deliberate action taken by somebody on board.
‘Someone acting deliberately’
The first clue that one or both of the pilots may have been involved stems from when the plane made a sharp, deliberate turn just after it last communicated with Kuala Lumpur air traffic controllers, and before it would have to communicate with Vietnamese controllers, according to the U.S. official with knowledge of the latest intelligence thinking.
“This is the perfect place to start to disappear,” the official said.
Adding to the intrigue, ABC News reported that the dramatic left turn was preprogrammed into the plane’s navigation computer. It’s a task that would have required extensive piloting experience.
Two senior law enforcement officials also told ABC that new information revealed the plane performed “tactical evasion maneuvers” after it disappeared from radar. CNN was unable to confirm these reports.
Military radar showed the jetliner flew in a westerly direction back over the Malaysian peninsula, Najib said. It is then believed to have either turned northwest toward the Bay of Bengal or southwest elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, he said.
“Evidence is consistent with someone acting deliberately from inside the plane,” the Prime Minister said, officially confirming the plane’s disappearance was not caused by an accident. “Despite media reports that the plane was hijacked, we are investigating all major possibilities on what caused MH370 to deviate.”