KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — The Malaysian military has radar data showing the missing Boeing 777 jetliner changed course and made it to the Malacca Strait, hundreds of miles from the last position recorded by civilian authorities, according to a senior military official.
The development injects more mystery into the investigation of the disappearance of Saturday’s flight, and raises questions about why the aircraft was not transmitting signals detectable by civilian radar.
Local newspaper Berita Harian quoted Malaysian air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying radar at a military base had detected the airliner at 2:40 a.m. near Pulau Perak at the northern approach to the strait, a busy waterway that separates the western coast of Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
“After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he was quoted as saying.
A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed the report and also said the plane was believed to be flying low. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
However, the Malaysian government disputed the military’s claim.
Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, told the New York Times that senior military officials told him there was no evidence that the plane had made it to the the Malacca Strait. He said the reported comments by the military were “not true.”
Authorities had earlier said the plane, which took off from Kuala Lumpur on the western coast of Malaysia at 12:40 a.m. Saturday en route to Beijing, may have attempted to turn back, but they expressed surprise that it would do so without informing ground control.
The search for the plane was initially focused on waters between the eastern coast of Malaysia and Vietnam, the position where aviation authorities last tracked it. No trace of the plane, which was carrying 239 people, has been found by than 40 planes and ships from at least 10 nations searching the area.
Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, said it is investigating an Australian television report that the co-pilot on the missing plane had invited two women into the cockpit during a flight two years ago.
Jonti Roos described the encounter on Australia’s “A Current Affair.” The airline said it wouldn’t comment until its investigation is complete.
Roos said she and her friend were allowed to stay in the cockpit during the entire one-hour flight on Dec. 14, 2011, from Phuket, Thailand, to Kuala Lumpur. She said the arrangement did not seem unusual to the plane’s crew.
“Throughout the entire flight, they were talking to us and they were actually smoking throughout the flight,” Roos said.
Roos didn’t immediately reply to a message sent to her via Facebook.
CBS News correspondent Chip Reid reports that the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam are relatively shallow. But shallow water presents its own problems – tides and currents are stronger, scattering debris more quickly. Shallow water can also confuse sonar, sound waves used to locate objects on the ocean floor.
Oceanographer David Gallo led the 2009 search for Air France Flight 447, which went down in deep water in a remote section of the Atlantic Ocean. Search teams located the wreckage within five days but it took another two years to the flight data recorders in an underwater mountain range.
“I always like to think that we need to start by finding the haystack, and then we can look for the bits of the needle in that haystack and in this case the haystack is huge because we just don’t have the clues,” Gallo told CBS News.
Earlier Tuesday, Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that search and rescue teams had expanded their scope to the Malacca Strait. An earlier statement said the western coast of Malaysia was “now the focus,” but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight. It didn’t elaborate. Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the search remained “on both sides” of the country.
Also Tuesday, authorities said two people who boarded the flight using stolen passports were Iranians who had purchased tickets to Europe. Their use of stolen documents had raised speculation of a possible terrorist link.
Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said investigators had determined one was a 19-year-old Iranian, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, and that it seemed likely he was planning to migrate to Germany.
“We believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group,” Khalid said.
Interpol identified the second man as Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar, a 29-year-old Iranian, and released an image of the two boarding a plane at the same time. Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said the two men traveled to Malaysia on their Iranian passports, then apparently switched to their stolen Austrian and Italian documents.
He said speculation of terrorism appeared to be dying down “as the belief becomes more certain that these two individuals were probably not terrorists.” He appealed to the public for more information about them.
Noble said neither of the men had a criminal record.
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