Malaysian authorities have defended their handling of the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet as they revealed the search is now covering 27,000 square nautical miles.
Officials have admitted they were unsure which direction the plane was headed when it disappeared as the international search mission carries on in its fifth day.
The mystery over the plane’s whereabouts has been confounded by confusing and occasionally conflicting statements by Malaysian officials, adding to the anguish of relatives of the 239 people on board the flight – two thirds of them Chinese.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein described the multinational search for the missing plane as an unprecedented and complicated effort and defended his country’s efforts.
He said two areas, in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, were being searched by a total of 49 ships and 39 planes.
The latest information comes after Chinese relatives of the missing people vented their frustration at Malaysian officials in Beijing, throwing water bottles and shouting: ‘Tell us the truth.’
Air force chief Rodzali Daud said air defence radar showed an unidentified object at 2:15am about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Penang.
‘I am not saying it’s flight MH370. We are still corroborating this. It was an unidentifiable plot,’ he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, meanwhile, told reporters in Beijing: ‘There’s too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate.
‘We will not give it up as long as there’s still a shred of hope.’
The country’s transport minister Mr Hishammuddin meanwhile said the search now involved 12 countries, including India and Japan.
He said: ‘It’s not something that is easy. We are looking at so many vessels and aircraft, so many countries to coordinate, and a vast area for us to search,’ he said. ‘But we will never give up. This we owe to the families’ of those on board.
Earlier, police in Malaysia disclosed that they had nine eyewitness reports of aircraft ‘noise and lights’ being seen in the north-east of the country, near the border with Thailand, after the plane’s last recorded sighting on civilian radar systems.
The new claims follow two earlier statements by a businessman and a fisherman that they had seen an aircraft’s lights low in the sky before they disappeared.
Deputy police commander Dak Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman said the eyewitnesses had reported that they saw an aircraft – possibly the missing jet – at about the time all civilian tracking data was lost with flight MH370 in the early hours of last Saturday.
The reports, from several towns and villages in the north east, said the aircraft was seen low over the sea.
The towns included Kuala Besar, Pentai Cahaya Bulan, Pentai Senok and Penarik, all of which are on the coast of the South China Sea, which is south and west of where the plane was last seen.
‘Based on the reports, the plane was sighted between 1.30am and 1.45am,’ said commander Jalaluddin.
‘A bus driver, who gave his voluntary statement on Sunday, said he saw a low-flying plane at Penarik at about 1.45am the same day flight MH370 went missing.
‘The driver was sure that he saw the aircraft’s blinking beacon lights.’
From the Marang area, said the commander, eight villagers lodged police reports claiming they had heard a loud noise on Saturday night coming from the direction of Pulau Kapas.
One of the villagers, Alias Salleh, 36, told The Star newspaper that he and some friends were on a bench about 400m from the Marang beach at 1.20am when they heard a loud and frightening noise which sounded like the fan of a jet engine.
‘The loud and frightening noise came from the north east of Pulau Kapas,’ said Mr Alias.
‘We looked around the Rhu Muda beach but did not see anything unusual.’