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By Chico Harlan, Ashley Halsey III and Annie Gowen, Updated: Saturday, March 15, 12:40 PM
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that a missing passenger jet was steered off course after its communications systems were intentionally disabled and could have potentially flown for seven additional hours.
In the most comprehensive account to date of the plane’s fate, Najib drew an ominous picture of what happened aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, saying investigators had determined there was “deliberate action by someone on the plane.”
Najib said the investigation had “refocused” to look at the crew and passengers. A Malaysia Airlines representative, speaking to relatives of passengers in Beijing, said the Malaysian government had opened a criminal investigation into the plane’s disappearance.
The plane’s whereabouts remain unknown one week after it disappeared from civilian radar shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur. But Najib, citing newly analyzed satellite data, said the plane could have last made contact anywhere along one of two corridors: one stretching from northern Thailand toward the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border, the other, more southern corridor stretching from Indonesia to the remote Indian Ocean.
U.S. officials previously said they believed the plane could have remained in the air for several extra hours, and Najib said Saturday that the flight was still communicating with satellites until 8:11 a.m. — 7 ½ hours after takeoff, and more than 90 minutes after it was due in Beijing. There was no further communication with the plane after that time, Najib said. If the plane was still in the air, it would have been nearing its fuel limit.
“Due to the type of satellite data,” Najib said, “we are unable to confirm the precise location of the plane when it last made contact with the satellite.”
A U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation on Friday said the only thing the satellite can tell is how much it would need to adjust its antenna to get the strongest signal from the plane. It cannot provide the plane’s exact position or which direction it flew, just how far the plane is, roughly, from the last good data-transmission location when the digital datalink system was actually sending data up to the satellite.
The U.S. official said the search area is somewhere along the arc or circumference of a circle with a diameter of thousands of miles.
The new leads about the plane’s end point, though ambiguous, have drastically changed a search operation involving more than a dozen nations. Malaysia on Saturday said that efforts would be terminated in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, the spot where the plane first disappeared from civilian radar.
Malaysian authorities are now likely to look for help from other countries in Southeast and South Asia, seeking mysterious or unidentified readings that their radar systems might have picked up.
The plane, based on one potential end point, could have spent nearly all its flight time over the Indian Ocean as it headed to an area west of Australia. But if the plane traveled in the direction of Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, it would present a more perplexing scenario in which it would have evaded detection for hours while flying through a volatile region where airspace is heavily monitored: Burma, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and western China are all in the neighborhood of that path, as is the United States’ Bagram air base, which is in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan would not comment on the possibility that the plane had flown over that country, but that scenario seems unlikely given the tight western control over Afghan airspace.
Afghan officials said they rely on Americans on such matters. “We do not know what has happened to the plane or if it has overflown Afghan air space. We do not have a radar. Go and ask the Americans,” said a senior Afghan official.
A Pakistani official said his country has not yet been asked by Malaysia to share its radar data, but will provide them if asked.
“Given the strong radar system that we have, and also that India and other countries in the region have, it’s very difficult for a plane to fly undetected for so long,” said Abid Qaimkhan, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Malaysia has confirmed that a previously unknown radar trail picked up by its military was indeed MH370. That blip suggests the plane had cut west, across the Malaysian peninsula, after severing contact with the ground. Malaysia received help in analyzing that radar data from the United States’ National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, and the British Air Accident Investigation Branch.
Malaysian investigators now believe that the Boeing-777 airliner, bound for Beijing with 227 passengers, deliberately cut a series of communications systems as it headed toward the boundary of Malaysian airspace. U.S. officials and aviation experts say the plane could have been hijacked by somebody with aviation knowledge or sabotaged by a crew member.
Investigators have not yet presented a clear scenario of what could have happened on board. Reuters reported that Malaysian police on Saturday searched the home of the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, who had more than three decades of commercial flight experience. A senior Malaysian police official refused to confirm the search.
Zaharie had a flight simulator at his home, something that appeared in a YouTube video posted from his unconfirmed YouTube account. Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Friday that “everyone is free to do their own hobby” and that it isn’t unusual for pilots to have home simulators.
U.S. officials have said that the plane, shortly after being diverted, reached an altitude of 45,000 feet and “jumped around a lot.” But the airplane otherwise appeared to operate normally. Significantly, the transponder and a satellite-based communication system did not stop at the same time, as they would if the plane had exploded, disintegrated or crashed into the ocean.
Najib said Saturday that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, was disabled just as MH370 reached the eastern coast of Malaysia. The transponder was then switched off, Najib said, as the aircraft neared the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace.
According to the Malaysian government, a satellite that tracked the aircraft was located more than 22,000 miles above sea level. Even after the ACARS system was disconnected, the satellite still received some basic signal from the plane — what one U.S. official described as a “handshake.” Though no data was being transmitted, the satellite continued to reach out to the plane on an hourly basis and received confirmation that the plane was still flying.
“There’s no circuit breaker that would allow you to shut off the handshake,” the official said.
That satellite handshake took place on a system operated by Inmarsat, a British satellite company that provides global mobile telecommunications services.
U.S. officials declined to say how closely that handshake allowed them to track the path of the missing plane. But one U.S. official explained that the satellite wasn’t able to read the plane’s exact location or even what direction it flew. Instead, the satellite was able to determine how far the plane had traveled since the last known spot where ACARS was transmitting data. That could explain how Malaysia created two possible arcs where the plane might have traveled.
Najib said Saturday that the search for MH370 had entered a “new phase.” The U.S. Navy, already positioned to the west of the Malaysian peninsula, was planning to meet tonight to discuss whether and how to redeploy its assets, spokesman Cmdr. William Marks said.
Indian officials said Saturday morning that they were still awaiting new orders in response to the Malaysian prime minister’s statement that the official search focus shift from the South China Sea to the two “corridors” west of Malaysia.
“Nothing is certain. These are all probabilities,” said Captain D.K. Sharma, a spokesman for the India Navy. “Let the new orders come. Let’s see how we respond.”
India has now expanded its search from the area around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — where five vessels and four planes have been deployed — to the north and west, by adding four additional aircraft to scour the massive Bay of Bengal — two P-8I anti-submarine and electronic intelligence planes and three other military aircraft, including a C-130J and two Dorniers. Search teams from the Indian military had spent much of the day Friday searching the jungles on remote islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, most of which are uninhabited, but so far have come up empty.
Other nations along the Bay of Bengal are now the expanding search as well. Gowher Rizvi, an adviser to Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina, said that country had deployed two aircraft and two frigates in the Bay of Bengal.
Harlan reported from Kuala Lumpur, and Gowen reported from New Delhi. Liu Liu contributed from Beijing. Tim Craig contributed from Pakistan, Joel Achenbach, Adam Goldman and Sari Horwitz contributed from Washington and Rama Lakshmi contributed from New Delhi.