Pressure grows on Malaysia as search for flight MH370 goes on

Australia alone searching area of 600,000 sq km for missing aircraft

A child leaves a message of support for family members and passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at  Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photograph:   Samsul Said/Reuters

A child leaves a message of support for family members and passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photograph: Samsul Said/Reuters

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 22:12

As the latest evidence in the vanished Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 pointed to the deliberate diversion of the aircraft, China stepped up its demands for more action by the Malaysian authorities to find the missing jetliner.

Despite one of the biggest searches in aviation history, there is no trace of flight MH370 since it disappeared with 239 passengers and crew early on March 8th. Investigators now believe it was diverted by someone with technical knowledge of the aircraft and commercial navigation.

The number of countries involved in the search has increased to 26, and the area being covered by the search is truly vast.

US, Australian and Indonesian planes and ships are searching waters to the south of Sumatra all the way down to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

The Australians alone are searching an area of 600,000 sq km.

Two-thirds of the passengers on board were Chinese and the authorities in Beijing said they had checked the background of its nationals on board and found no links to terrorism.

Dampened speculation
The remarks are aimed at dampening speculation that Uighur Muslim separatists in restive Xinjiang province might have been involved in the aircraft’s baffling disappearance.

Malaysian investigators are following numerous lines of enquiry, ranging from hijacking to sabotage, terrorism to possible mental health questions about the crew or passengers.

The pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a strong backer of Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party, and attended a court hearing on March 7th, the day before the aircraft disappeared, where Mr Anwar’s acquittal on sodomy charges was overturned.

This decision is read as politically motivated, and comes up before key elections in Malaysia, whenever the 66-year old opposition leader looks like making a dent in support for the United Malays National Organisation that has ruled Malaysia for 56 years.

Mr Anwar has vehemently rejected reports which appear to make a link between him and the missing aircraft, describing them as “desperate”. The pilot is related to one of Mr Anwar’s in-laws, and he has met him, but he described the attempts to link him to the flight’s disappearance as “part of the routine character assassination campaign” against him by government and ruling party-controlled media.

Vast area
China has increased to 21 the number of satellites deployed to scour the area for the missing aircraft, and Premier Li Keqiang said the range of the search was covering an increasingly vast area.

“As long as there is still a gleam of hope, we should continue to do our utmost,” Mr Li said.

With so many of its nationals on board, the Chinese have kept up the pressure on the Malaysian side to continue the search, with a government spokesman demanding “comprehensive and correct information” and urging the airline to recognise its responsibilities to the families of the missing passengers.

The relatives are becoming increasingly desperate.

News that the aircraft may have been hijacked rather than crashed prompted hope among the families, and relatives in Beijing threatened to go on hunger strike as they demanded answers about the missing aircraft from Malaysian officials.

Relatives at a Beijing hotel awaiting information claim they are being kept in the dark about the latest developments.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily press briefing that China is readjusting its search efforts, with the focus no longer in the South China Sea.