March 12, 2014

Article at Washington Post

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Contradictory statements from Malaysia over missing airliner perplex, infuriate

Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's transport minister, and Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, give a news conference Wednesday. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

BEIJING -- The media should not issue unconfirmed reports about Malaysia Airlines' missing plane, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief complained this week, as they only raised people’s hopes and hampered the investigation.

And then Azharuddin Abdul Rahman proceeded to issue the latest in a series of contradictory statements on the missing plane -- statements from the Malaysians that have added to the confusion, infuriated passengers’ relatives and frustrated governments involved in the search.

The confusion began Saturday morning, when Malaysia Airlines issued a statement saying Flight MH370 had vanished from radar screens at 2:40 a.m. that morning on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The following day, without explanation, it fell into line with its own government, revising the time the airplane vanished to 1:30 a.m., less than an hour after it had taken off.

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On Saturday, journalists in Italy and Austria worked out that two people must have boarded the plane with stolen passports. The Malaysian government reacted by confirming it was aware of the reports, then raising the number of people thought to have been traveling with false identification to four, and then cutting it back to two again.

On Monday, Azharuddin said five passengers had checked in but never boarded the plane. He insisted that their luggage was offloaded before the plane departed.

That statement never rang true -- the plane departed on time, which seldom, if ever, happens when luggage has to be sorted through and offloaded. Lo and behold, it was completely wrong. Malaysia Airlines said four passengers had bought tickets but failed to show up for the flight, a common occurrence. It added that everyone who had checked in for the flight went on to board.

The identities of the men traveling with stolen passports sparked more confusion, even as authorities studied closed-circuit television footage. Malaysia’s home minister told local journalists they looked Asian; but Azharuddin was categorical in saying they were not Asian-looking, even comparing one of them to the Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli.

The following day, Malaysian police confirmed the two men’s identities. Both were Iranian. For the record, neither looked remotely like Balotelli, a child of Ghanaian immigrants who styles his hair in a Mohican cut, sometimes dyed blonde.

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But the most frustrating -- and potentially critical -- source of confusion centers around the plane’s last known location.

The search was initially focused on the Gulf of Thailand, in the area where the plane’s transponder went dark some 40 minutes after takeoff. Then, on Sunday, Malaysia’s air force issued tantalizing new information: their radar records suggested the plane might have turned around before vanishing.

By Tuesday, more ships were searching in the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea -- to the west of the Malaysian peninsula -- than were searching in the Gulf of Thailand to the east. Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that the western side of the peninsula was “now the focus” of the search; a few hours later, a spokeswoman for the airline said that wording was a mistake, and that there was no emphasis on any location.

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The same day, Malaysia’s air force chief was quoted by a local newspaper as saying that the Boeing 777 jet was detected by military radar at 2:40 a.m. Saturday near Pulau Perak at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, which separates the western side of the Malaysian peninsula from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. “After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he told the newspaper.

Military officials, speaking to the Associated Press and Reuters, confirmed the air force chief’s remarks. On Wednesday morning, however, Gen. Rodzali Daud took them back, denying he had ever made such a statement, although he reiterated that the military has not “ruled out the possibility” that the plane turned back.

Reflecting the confusion and frustration, Vietnam said Wednesday that it was scaling back the search in its own waters. Hanoi complained pointedly that it had asked Malaysia for more information about whether the jet had changed course after vanishing from civilian radar, but had not even received a response.

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China’s government has been urging Malaysia to step up its search and rescue efforts almost from the start. On Wednesday, the nationalist Global Times newspaper turned the criticism up a notch, saying Malaysia’s efforts to find the plane had “a lot of loopholes.”

“We have to say, the information Malaysia released to the public is very chaotic,” it wrote in an editorial. “Is the Malaysia military hiding anything on purpose? Or is it because Malaysia’s military and civilian administration lack coordinating capacity -- that caused this chaotic situation, that the released information was so different?”

The newspaper called on Malaysia to let China study the original data and judge for itself. “We hope Malaysia can face its own shortcomings, and cooperate with China with a more open and candid attitude.”

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In Beijing, relatives of those on board threw water bottles at Malaysia Airlines staff on Sunday and Monday to reflect their own frustrations with the lack of information. On Wednesday, the Malaysian ambassador to China and two civil aviation officials from Kuala Lumpur met them in an attempt to assuage their anger and were bombarded with questions.

“Has military radar tracked the plane?” they asked. “We want to know the exact location, the height and position it disappeared. Four days have passed, does that mean the Malaysian government is trying to hide something?”

Does that mean, a relative shot back, that the Malaysian government does not want to disclose it? “Maybe it is still not the right time yet,” the civil aviation official said.

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On Sunday, the international police agency Interpol expressed its frustration that the two stolen passports had not been checked against its database, and that procedures supposed to have been put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were not systematically followed by most of its 190 member countries.

The explanation offered by Malaysia’s police chief was as baffling as it was unsatisfactory. There are just too many names on the Interpol database, he said, more than 14 million of them.

On Twitter, users veered between outrage at the apparent lack of security and anger at the mass of contradictory statements.

“An aircraft flies that long off course, and no one makes contact or raises alarm… what sort of security is that after 9/11?” tweeted a user called Brighita (@supramin).

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