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By Anshuman Daga and Siva Govindasamy, Reuters, Published March 15 2014

Malaysian PM: Lost airliner was diverted deliberately

KUALA LUMPUR – A missing Malaysian jetliner was likely steered deliberately to a course that could have taken it anywhere from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean, Malaysia’s prime minister said on Saturday, in a dramatic revelation that intensified scrutiny of the 239 crew and passengers.

Minutes after Malaysian leader Najib Razak outlined investigators’ latest findings about flight MH370 at a news conference, police began searching the house of the aircraft’s 53-year-old captain for any evidence that he could have been involved in foul play.

Najib, giving his first statement at a news conference since the day that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER vanished from radar screens a week ago, confirmed reports that investigators believe somebody cut off the plane’s communications and steered it west, far from its scheduled route to Beijing.

“In view of this latest development the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” he said.

“Despite media reports the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear, we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate.”

Search operations by navies and aircraft from more than a dozen nations were immediately called off in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea to the east of Malaysia, where the plane dropped off civilian air traffic control screens at 1:22 a.m. last Saturday.

Najib said new data showed the last communication between the missing plane and satellites at 8:11 a.m., almost seven hours after it turned back and crossed the Malay peninsula.

The data did not show whether the plane was still flying or its location at that time, presenting searchers with a daunting array of possible last locations. Seven hours more flying time would likely have taken it to the limit of its fuel load.

Najib said the plane’s final communication with satellites placed it somewhere in one of two corridors: a northern corridor stretching from northern Thailand to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, or a southern corridor stretching from Indonesia to the vast southern Indian Ocean.

“Clearly, the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” said Najib, whose government has come under criticism for its slow release of information surrounding what is one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history.

About two-thirds of the passengers on board the flight were Chinese, and Beijing has been showing increasing impatience with the speed and co-ordination of the Malaysian search effort.

On Saturday, China said it had demanded that Malaysia keep providing more thorough and accurate information, and added that it was sending a technical team to Malaysia to help with the investigation.

China’s Xinhua state news agency said in a commentary that Najib’s disclosure of the new details was “painfully belated”.

“And due to the absence – or at least lack – of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families,” it said.