Malaysia’s airforce chief General Rodzali Daud has denied the missing Malaysia Airlines plane was spotted off course on radar before it vanished.
General Daud said he was misreported by a local Malaysian news outlet that quoted him as saying MH370 flight was detected off the Straight of Malacca, hundreds of kilometres off course, but he said the milatary had widened its search west of where the aircraft was last seen, the ABC has reported.
“The [air force] has not ruled out the possibility of an air turn-back on a reciprocal heading before the aircraft vanished from the radar,” he said.
“This resulted in the search and rescue operations being widened to the vicinity of the waters [off the west coast of Malaysia].”
So far no trace has been found of the plane, with Reuters earlier reporting a change of course which would appear to rule out sudden catastrophic mechanical failure, as it would mean the plane flew around 500 km after last contact with air traffic control with transponders and other tracking systems turned off.
That theory now appears to be momentarily debunked.
Malaysian authorities have previously said flight MH370 disappeared about an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for the Chinese capital Beijing.
False reports that the plane had changed direction came as the identities of two men traveling on stolen passports were revealed.
The men appear to have been Iranian illegal immigrants, lessening fears of terrorism but doing little to unlock the agonising riddle of what has befallen the plane’s 239 passengers and crew.
On the fourth day, relatives desperate for news of loved ones aboard Malaysia Airlines MH370 said their hopes for a miracle were ebbing away.
Authorities have doubled the search radius to 100 nautical miles (equivalent to 185km) around the point where the Boeing 777 disappeared from radar over the South China Sea early on Saturday, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
“We are intensifying our search and rescue, and hoping against hope there is still an opportunity for us to rescue (the passengers and crew),” Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.
The 34-year-old son of Malaysian security guard Subramaniam Gurusamy was on the flight to do business in Beijing for an oil company.
“My three-year-old grandson is asking: ‘where is Dad?’ We tell him father has gone to buy sweets for you,” Gurusamy, 60, said as he broke down in tears.
“Please bring back my son. I am praying for divine intervention. That is the only hope we have.”
Identities revealed of stolen passport travelers
The identities of two men who had boarded the flight using stolen European passports were revealed, suggesting they were young Iranian migrants seeking a new life overseas.
Interpol named the two as Pouri Nour Mohammadi, 18, who was booked to fly on to Germany, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, whose final destination appeared to be Denmark.
The two travelled to Kuala Lumpur from Doha on their Iranian passports, officials said.
“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it was not a terrorist incident,” Interpol chief Ronald Noble told reporters in France.
Iran offered its assistance to the Malaysian investigation, pledging to provide “any information on the Iranians and their status as soon as it is available”.
Police in Southeast Asia agreed that people-smuggling was emerging as the likeliest explanation for the identity fraud, which had sparked a Malaysian terror probe joined by FBI agents from the US.
The two passports – one Italian and one Austrian – were stolen over the past two years in Thailand, where police have long been battling a thriving trade in Western documents used by criminal gangs.
An Iranian man identified as “Mr Ali” made the two bookings by phone through a travel agency in the Thai resort of Pattaya on March 1, asking for the two cheapest tickets to Europe, Thai police say.
“We believe that these two passports were stolen by a human-smuggling gang who send people to work in third countries, especially European countries,” said Lieutenant General Panya Maman, commander of Thailand’s southern police region.
Flight MH370, captained by a veteran MAS pilot, had relayed no indications of distress, and weather at the time was said to be good.
The vastness of the search zone reflects authorities’ bafflement over the plane’s disappearance. The operation has grown to involve 42 ships and 35 aircraft from Southeast Asian countries, Australia, China, New Zealand and the United States.
Vietnam asked fishing boats off its southern coast – where the flight dropped off radar – for help in the effort but said it feared the worst.
The search sphere now includes land on the Malaysian peninsula itself, the waters off its west coast, and an area to the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.