Malaysian police search homes of missing flight’s pilots as focus turns to foul play

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the satellite data indicated possible flight paths of the missing plane. The data indicated possible points at which the plane last made its satellite contact, not specific paths. This version has been corrected.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Police on Saturday searched the homes of the pilots who were in control of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 shortly before it disappeared more than a week ago as investigators sharpened their focus on the possibility that the plane fell victim to foul play.

The plane captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, has been a Malaysia Airlines pilot for more than three decades, logging 18,000 hours in the air. There was no indication Saturday that he or co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, had been targeted by investigators.

The search came the same day that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the plane’s disappearance was “deliberate” and evidence emerged that it appeared to have flown for seven hours after its radar transponder and satellite uplink went dead, apparently turned off by someone in the cockpit.

“Clearly, the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” Najib said.

But there was no explanation of who — crew members, hijackers or terrorists — might have commandeered the Boeing 777. And while the investigation tilted toward what one U.S. official called “a criminal event,” there were cautions that until the plane is found, all possibilities remain on the table.

New data have provided an arc of possible locations for Malaysian Flight 370.

In the most comprehensive account to date of the plane’s fate, Najib said the investigation had “refocused” to look at the crew and passengers. He said satellite data showed that 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.

Najib said Saturday that the flight was still being contacted by satellites until 8:11 a.m. — 7½ hours after takeoff, and more than 90 minutes after it was due in Beijing. 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 said that even after the flow of data from the plane ended — about the same time the plane’s radar transponder went dead — the satellite kept trying to contact the plane and could determine that it still was in flight. Though that contact effort provided no specific information on position or direction, it did tell about how far the plane was from the last location when its digital datalink system was actually sending data up to the satellite.

The new leads about the plane’s endpoint, although ambiguous, have drastically changed a search operation involving more than a dozen nations.

On Sunday, India put its search for the plane on hold at the request of the government in Kuala Lumpur. India had been searching around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in the Bay of Bengal. Defense officials said both the searches have been suspended but may resume.

“There is a very high level coordination meeting take place taking place in Malaysia, so it is too premature to say that everything has been stopped. There is a temporary pause in operation waiting the joint coordination meeting in Malaysia. Beyond this I have no inputs,” said Capt. D.K. Sharma, Navy spokesman.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the movements of the missing plane were consistent with a deliberate act by someone who turned the jet back across Malaysia and onwards to the west. (Associated Press, Reuters)

Malaysia said Saturday that efforts would be terminated in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, where the plane first disappeared from civilian radar.

The plane, based on one potential endpoint, could have spent nearly all its flight time over the Indian Ocean as it headed toward 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 the aircraft would have evaded detection for hours while flying through a volatile region where airspace is heavily monitored: Burma, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and western China are all in the neighborhood of that path, as is the United States’ Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

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 U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

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 the plane’s 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.

Halsey reported from Washington, and Gowen reported from New Delhi. Liu Liu in Beijing; Tim Craig in Islamabad, Pakistan; Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi; and Joel Achenbach, Adam Goldman and Sari Horwitz in Washington contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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