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Flight MH370: Missing plane exposes 'loopholes' in Malaysia's air defence systems

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UPDATEDMalaysian authorities are facing questions over the effectiveness of its air defence systems following the seizure and disappearance of flight MH370.

This follows the disclosure at the weekend by Prime Minister Najib Razak that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 aircraft was apparently hi-jacked shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, turned around over the South China Sea and flew back over Peninsular Malaysia, all without alerting the country’s defence forces.

The apparent failure to notice the plane had changed direction, fallen off the radar and then flown toward and through its air space has identified serious loopholes in its air defences.

Most countries with advanced air forces would detect an incoming hostile aircraft 200 miles from shore and scramble fighter jets to challenge it.

Indian air traffic controllers’ leader Sugata Pramanik says a plane can “can easily become invisible to civilian radar by switching off the transponder ... But it cannot avoid defence systems.”

But Malaysia’s Transport Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, has dismissed the concerns and says the disaster was an “unprecedented case” with lessons for all.

“It’s not right to say there is a breach in the standard procedures ... what we’re going through here is being monitored throughout the world and may change aviation history,” he says.
His comments are supported by Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Director General of Civil Aviation, who says, “many will have lessons to learn from this. I’ve been in aviation for 35 years and I’ve never seen this kind of incident before.”

He adds: “It’s not right to say there is a breach in the standard procedures ... what we’re going through here is being monitored throughout the world and may change aviation history.”

Anifah Aman, Malaysia’s foreign minister, has told London’s Daily Telegraph the world is “missing the point” by focusing on security implications.

“The focus must be on finding the plane. I don’t want to support any of the theories at this juncture. This involves a lot of lives. My worry is where is the plane and what little chance that people are safe so that they can come back ... we believe in miracles and like to think they’re safe and can return to their families,” he says.

Earlier reports
In a weekend of dramatic developments, the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 now covers vast areas encompassing central Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

The pilots are also suspected of a hijacking as Malasian authorities have turned the search into a criminal investigation. In other developments:

  • Some 25 countries including Kazakhstan and Indonesia have now been briefed as the search area was widened to two corridors to the north and south of Malaysia
  • One of the plane’s transponder systems was switched off before the last communication from the cockpit - a message saying, “All right, good night.”
  • The investigation is refocusing on the backgrounds of the passengers, pilots and even ground staff. The families of the pilot and co-pilot have been interviewed.
  • Police are examining a flight simulator belonging to one of the pilots.
  • US lawmakers and Chinese authorities have expressed their frustration with Malaysian authorities handling the search.
  • India has suspended its naval and aerial search for the jetliner while it awaits word on fresh search areas from the Malaysian authorities.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced at the weekend a shift to a criminal investigation and suggested someone with intimate knowledge of the aircraft’s cockpit had seized control of the Boeing 777-200 aircraft and sent it off course.

Flight MH370 went missing early on Saturday, March 8, carrying 239 passengers and crew bound for Beijing, Air traffic controllers lost contact as the aircraft passed into Vietnamese air space but subsequent satellite signals indicate it was still flying for up to another six and a half hours.

Mr Razak announced the international search would move to two huge new areas, a northern one spanning an area from northern Thailand to the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border and a southern one spanning an area from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.

Investigators are trying to narrow down the search area by examining all available radar and satellite data from the region. Even when transmissions from the aircraft finally stopped, it still would have had fuel aboard to fly on for hundreds more nautical miles.

Mr Razak said satellite and radar data clearly indicated the plane’s automated communications had been disabled and the plane then turned away from its intended path.

“These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” he said, adding that investigators had consequently “refocused their investigation into crew and passengers on board.”

Focus on the pilots
Malaysian police have searched the homes of Flight MH370 pilots Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.

Mr Zaharie had assembled his own flight simulator at home, according to online tributes describing his passion for flying.

Sunday newspapers in London have reported political and jihadist motivations.

The Mail on Sunday says hours before the flight Mr Zaharie is said to have attended a trial in which Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – who has been harassed and jailed on successive charges of homosexuality and sodomy – was sentenced to jail for five years.

The Mail’s police sources say Captain Zaharie was a political activist and a supporter of Mr Anwar, and they feared the court decision had left him profoundly upset. Mr Anwar's political party has denied the report.

Mr Fariq is the son of a high-ranking official in the public works department of a Malaysian state and was a regular visitor to his neighbourhood mosque outside Kuala Lumpur.

The Daily Telegraph reported that police were investigating a claim that extremists linked to al-Qa’ida planned to hijack an aircraft using a shoe bomb to blow open the cockpit door.

An informant identified as Saajid Badat, a British-born Muslim from Gloucester, told a court he had met the Malaysian jihadists – one of whom was a pilot – in Afghanistan and given them a shoe bomb.

US, China express frustration
A train of false leads in the search over the past week has caused friction with other countries, especially China, which had more than 150 citizens aboard the missing Boeing 777.

In the US, lawmakers expressed frustration with the Malaysian government's handling of the probe, saying there was a lack of information and a resistance to involving international law enforcement, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol.

India suspends search
India suspended its search around the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in the Bay of Bengal and is awaiting a new request from Malaysia.

“The entire operation is on hold for now. We are awaiting fresh instructions from Malaysia,” said Colonel Harmit Singh, spokesman for India’s army, navy and air force command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“None of the planes from our air fleet took off today. Even the navy vessels involved in search operations have moved to another island,” he said.