Malaysia says it is sending ships to investigate a sighting of what could be a life raft, as an international rescue force searched for traces of an aircraft carrying 239 people to China which vanished two days ago.
China, which had 153 of its nationals on board, said Malaysia needed to “step up” its efforts after authorities admitted they were mystified by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370.
Relatives’ anguish and frustration was deepened when initial reports of debris off southern Vietnam were ruled out, before an aircraft spotted another object.
“There was a report today that we just received that an aircraft had seen something like an inverted life raft … so we are contacting our counterparts, we are sending ships there to verify the object,” said Malaysia’s head of civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman.
Malaysia has launched a terror probe after at least two of the passengers on board the plane were found to have travelled on stolen passports. The country’s police chief said on Monday one of them had been identified, but gave no further details.
Azharuddin had few answers to the burning questions surrounding the plane’s fate. Asked whether it was possible the plane had been hijacked or disintegrated mid-air, he said nothing could be ruled out.
“We are looking at every angle. We are looking at every aspect of what could have happened,” he said.
“This unprecedented missing aircraft mystery – it is mystifying and we are increasing our efforts to do what we have to do.”
Beijing’s state media lashed out at Malaysia and MAS over their handling of the crisis that began early Saturday when the Boeing 777 slipped off radar screens, an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.
“The Malaysian side cannot shirk its responsibilities,” the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, wrote in a scathing editorial.
“The initial response from Malaysia was not swift enough.”
At a Beijing hotel, Malaysian embassy officials were processing visa applications for families wanting to take up an offer from MAS to travel to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the rescue operations.
Scores of relatives made their way into the room, some in groups of five or six, clutching handkerchiefs and wiping away tears from their faces.
Others said they would not go. “There is more we can do here in China,” one woman told AFP. “They haven’t even found the plane yet.”
A team of Chinese officials from government ministries headed for Malaysia on Monday, tasked with investigating the incident and helping family members already there.
As the search entered a third full day, other families of missing passengers gathered at a hotel in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, sharing breakfast as they stared intently at television news bulletins.
The search effort has zeroed in on waters off the remote Vietnamese island of Tho Chu, near where two large oil slicks – suspected to be caused by aircraft fuel – as well as the suspected debris were spotted on the weekend.
As part of the search effort involving several countries and dozens of planes and ships, mostly in the South China Sea, Malaysian authorities said they were also combing waters closer to their shores, further south of Tho Chu.
As they scramble to discover what happened, Malaysian officials have said there was a possibility that MH370 may have inexplicably turned back towards Kuala Lumpur.
The plane, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.
Questions have also swirled over how the two passengers boarded the jet on stolen passports, sparking an investigation into possible links with terrorism and a probe into the sale of passports in Thailand – where the documents were stolen over the past two years.
Two European names – Christian Kozel, an Austrian, and Luigi Maraldi of Italy – were listed on the passenger list, but neither man boarded the plane.
Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said the man identified as using one of the passports is a non-Malaysian who was identified using airport video surveillance.
Home Minister Zahid Hamidi reportedly said Sunday that the two passengers who used the passports looked Asian in appearance.
“I am still puzzled how come (immigration officers) cannot think: an Italian and Austrian but with Asian facial features,” he was quoted as saying by Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama.