As the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 continues, the area being combed for any sign of the lost airplane is expanding day by day.
There's one new area apparently being focused on that might strike people as especially interesting: a closed, largely uninhabited archipelago called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Let's take a closer look.
What are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands?
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an Indian-controlled union territory about 850 miles east of the mainland. The archipelago, with about 380,000 residents, is known to be a place of natural beauty, with emerald waters and coral reefs that draw backpackers and honeymooners. It is also home to several protected indigenous tribes.
But it is also viewed by the government as an important spot for monitoring China and key shipping lanes. There are two large Indian military installations there, for the navy, army, air force and coast guard.
Because of both the delicate presence of the protected tribal groups as well as the territory's strategic importance, parts of the islands are off-limits to foreigners, and even Indians need a special permit to visit.
Notably, while the area contains 572 islands, only 37 are inhabited.
How come everybody’s talking about them this morning?
On Friday, Reuters said that military radar evidence suggested that the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 might have been hijacked and deliberately flown across the Malay Peninsula toward the Andaman Islands, the northern part of the territory that sits south of Burma and northwest of Malaysia.
What’s happening there right now, if we know?
In response to a request from the Malaysian government, India has launched a massive search operation in the waters near the island chain, which may expand northward into the Bay of Bengal in coming days.
So far, India has deployed four ships (with a fifth on the way), three planes and other aircraft in a sprawling search area that extends 13,500 square miles. More than 1,000 seamen on the ships alone are searching the waters for wreckage of the plane.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are really having their moment in the spotlight. When did they last come to global attention?
In December 2004, the island chain was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, sparked by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake, that spread out over India, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and 10 other countries. Thousands of people in the island chain drowned and thousands more lost their homes, with locations of the some of the islands even shifting in the aftermath. After the tsunami, the government of India was slow to allow outside aid, in part because it did want to allow access to its sensitive military installations.
Anything else that’s cool to know about them?
During the 19th century, British colonial rulers used the chain as a penal colony, bringing in people of diverse ethnic groups from the Indian mainland, one reason that the islands are today part of India, even if they are far closer geographically to other nations such as Indonesia. The islands are now home to six protected tribes, some of which live isolated from modern life in the jungle near beach resorts or among coconut plantations.