Chinese relatives threaten hunger strike over missing Malaysian plane

Search now spans much of Asia, but investigation shows scant progress; Australia narrows its search area

Relatives of passengers on Flight MH370 wait for new information at a hotel in Beijing, March 18, 2014.
Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Some Chinese relatives of passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 threatened on Tuesday to go on a hunger strike to pressure Malaysian authorities to release more information about the search for the plane.

"Now we have no news, and everyone is understandably worried," said Wen Wanchen, whose son is among the 239 people on the flight.

"The relatives say they will go to the [Malaysian] Embassy to find the ambassador. The Malaysian ambassador should be presenting himself here. But he's not. Relatives are very unsatisfied. So you hear them saying 'hunger strike'," he said.

This comes as the hunt for the plane enters its 11th day and the search zone has again been shifted.

China has deployed 21 satellites to scour its territory for the plane, while officials from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) announced Tuesday they are now searching an area southwest of Perth, on Australia’s west coast — much farther south than before, bordering Antarctica.

Authorities were searching in an area to the northwest, and it was not immediately clear why the search area was changed.

Even though Australia’s portion of the search area has been reduced, it is still more than 372,000 square miles — about the size of Spain and Portugal.

"A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy," John Young, general manager of the emergency response division of the AMSA, told reporters.

"The aircraft could have gone north or south, and if it went south, this is AMSA's best estimate of where we should look with the few resources we have at our disposal for such a search," he said.

The entire search area covers 2.57 million square miles. It now stretches from the Caspian Sea in Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.

Malaysia said Tuesday it conferred with U.S. and Chinese officials on the search, an unprecedented 26-nation operation.

Investigators are convinced that someone with deep knowledge of the Boeing 777-200ER plane and commercial navigation diverted the jet — carrying 12 crew members and 227 passengers who were mostly Chinese citizens — perhaps thousands of miles off its planned course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

But intensive background checks of everyone aboard have so far failed to find anyone with a possible political or criminal motive to crash or hijack the plane, Western security sources and Chinese authorities have said.

China has begun to search for MH370 in Chinese territory in the northern search corridor, the country’s official Xinhua news agency said. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news conference that 21 satellites were involved.

"In accordance with Malaysia's request, we are mobilizing satellites and radar to search over the Chinese section of the northern corridor, which the Malaysians say the plane may have flown over," he said.

Still looking for motive

China's ambassador to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, said his country had carried out a detailed investigation into its nationals aboard the flight and could rule out their involvement.

"The probe into the incident's cause is not suitable to be conducted in a high-profile way," Huang told Chinese reporters, according to an official microblog run by state television.

U.S. and European security sources said efforts by various governments to investigate the backgrounds of everyone on the flight had not, as of Monday, turned up links to militant groups or anything else that could explain the jet's disappearance. A European diplomat in Kuala Lumpur also said trawls through the passenger manifest had come up blank.

One source familiar with U.S. inquiries said the pilots were being studied because of the technical knowledge needed to disable the aircraft's communications systems.

Malaysian officials said on Monday that suicide by the pilot or co-pilot was a line of inquiry, although they stressed that it was only one of the possibilities under investigation.

Flight MH370 vanished from civilian air traffic control screens off Peninsular Malaysia's east coast less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.

Investigators piecing together patchy data from military radar and satellites believe that someone turned off the aircraft's identifying transponder and ACARS system, which transmits maintenance data, and turned west, crossing the Malay Peninsula and following a commercial aviation route toward India.

Thailand's military said Tuesday that a re-examination of its data showed what may have been the plane crossing the Malay Peninsula toward the Strait of Malacca, just minutes after Flight MH370's communications went down, and that it had not shared the information with Malaysia earlier because it was not specifically asked for it.

Thailand had previously said it had not detected any sign of the plane.

With only its own radar to go on, it took Malaysia a week to confirm that Flight 370 had entered the strait, an important detail that led it to change its search strategy.

When asked why it had taken so long to release the information, Thailand's Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn said, "Because we did not pay any attention to it. The Royal Thai Air Force only looks after any threats against our country, so anything that did not look like a threat to us, we simply look at it without taking actions."

What happened next is less certain. The plane may have flown for another six hours or more after dropping off Malaysian military radar about 200 miles northwest of the island of Penang.

The plane continued to send pings to satellites for up to five hours after its transponder was turned off, but those signals were not intended to work as locators.

The best they can do is place the plane on broad arcs. On the basis of the last signal picked up from MH370, the plane may be on one arc stretching north from Laos to the Caspian Sea or on one running south from an area west of Indonesia to the Indian Ocean off Australia.

Flight simulator

Malaysian police have searched the homes of the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and the first officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, both in middle-class suburbs of Kuala Lumpur near the airport.

Among the items taken for examination was a flight simulator Zaharie had built in his home.

A senior police officer with direct knowledge of the investigation said the programs from the pilot's simulator included Indian Ocean runways in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Diego Garcia and southern India, although he added that U.S. and European runways also featured.

"Generally these flight simulators show hundreds or even thousands of runways," the officer said.

"What we are trying to see is what were the runways that were frequently used. We also need to see what routes the pilot had been assigned to before. This will take time, so people cannot jump the gun just yet."

Some U.S. officials have expressed frustration at Malaysia's handling of the investigation. The Malaysian government still had not invited the FBI to send a team to Kuala Lumpur by Monday, two U.S. security officials said. China has also repeatedly voiced impatience with Malaysia's efforts.

Malaysia's Defense and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the country was cooperating with the FBI. "I have been working with them," he said Tuesday. "It's up for the FBI to tell us if they need more experts to help, because it's not for us to know what they have."

Hishammuddin said that he had spoken to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and "my counterpart in China" about the search for the plane.

The U.S. Navy is sending a P-8A Poseidon, its most advanced maritime surveillance aircraft, to Perth to assist with the search.

The disappearance of the plane was a major topic of conversation at the International Society of Transport Air Trading in San Diego, an annual gathering of 1,600 airplane makers, buyers and lessors.

"The people that I deal with are looking at this with great concern. It appears considerable efforts may have gone into cloaking the aircraft," said Robert Agnew, chief executive of aviation consultants Morten Beyer & Agnew.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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