Washington: The engines of a missing Malaysian airliner continued to operate for about four hours after it disappeared from radar over the Gulf of Thailand, US authorities said on Thursday, providing a tantalising new lead in a case that has baffled Malaysian authorities and turned into one of the biggest aviation mysteries in history.
As a result of unspecified “new information,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said authorities searching for the plane may expand the hunt into the Indian Ocean, which extends hundreds of miles farther west.
"It's my understanding that based on some new information that's not necessarily conclusive - but new information - an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "And we are consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy."
Yet in a measure of the continued caution and bafflement among the Malaysia's authorities. Malaysia's defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said the main search effort continued to be east of the Malaysian peninsula, in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.
Even so, a US destroyer, the Kidd, was redeploying to the Strait of Malacca west of Malaysia, the Seventh Fleet and Pentagon officials said - one of several indications that the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was turning away from the eastern waters that have been combed by dozens of ships and airplanes for days.
Mr Carney did not specify the nature of the "new information" but Obama administration officials later said the new information was that the plane’s engines remained running for approximately four hours after it vanished from radar early Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
As confusion clouded the information around the investigation, Mr Carney sidestepped a question as to whether the United States has confidence in the investigation being conducted by the Malaysian government.
"I just don't have an evaluation to make," he said. "What I can tell you is that we're working with the Malaysian government to try to find the plane; find out what happened to it for the sake of the families and, obviously, for the sake of knowing what caused the plane to disappear."
Malaysian officials said they had expanded the search into the Andaman Sea, the part of the Indian Ocean northwest of the strait. The Pentagon said that the Kidd would be searching there, at the request of the Malaysian government, and that a P-3 surveillance plane had already flown over the area. Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs, said that India had also sent three ships, two airplanes and a helicopter to search intensively in that area.
A senior Pentagon official said the Malaysian authorities were "looking pretty closely" at the possibility that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean, but had not reached any conclusions. Pentagon officials said that several US agencies were reviewing radar signals, but had not yet found anything that would indicate specifically where the plane might have gone down.
In a news briefing that was more structured and organised than those of earlier days, Malaysian authorities denied the report that the jetliner had transmitted technical data after contact with the cockpit was lost around 1.30 am Saturday, when the airplane was on course toward Beijing, its scheduled destination.
The report, by The Wall Street Journal, asserted that Rolls-Royce, the maker of the aircraft's engines, had received routine data transmissions from those engines on schedule after contact with the cockpit was lost, suggesting that the plane remained aloft for several more hours.
But the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said that the last technical data received from Flight 370 had come at 1.07am on Saturday, when the aircraft was still in touch with ground controllers, and there was no indication of trouble with the plane.
"That was the last transmission," Ahmad Jauhari said at a news conference at the international airport serving Kuala Lumpur, in Sepang. "It did not run beyond that."
Malaysian authorities said that both Rolls-Royce and Boeing told them they had not received any further data from the airplane after the transmission at 1.07 am.
Authorities said separately that nothing had come of images recorded by Chinese satellites on Sunday and posted online on Wednesday, which appeared to show large objects floating in the South China Sea. Aircraft and ships sent to the area found nothing, they said, and Mr Hishammuddin said he had been told by Chinese officials that "the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris."
The government also denied Malaysian news reports that the police had searched the house of the missing flight's pilot.
There were increasing indications that the aircraft did turn radically off course after contact with the ground was lost. Malaysian authorities said they were setting aside national security considerations and sharing military radar readings with the United States and China to help determine whether they show the missing jet.
They said the data appeared to show an unidentified plane flying westward across the Malaysian peninsula and toward the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea, with the last reading placing it 320 km northwest of the island of Penang, cruising at 29,500 feet.
The military took no immediate action on Saturday to investigate the unidentified blips, whose path appeared to take the aircraft near Penang, and only later realised the significance of the readings.
Mr Hishammuddin, who is also the country's acting transport minister, told reporters on Thursday that Malaysia had asked neighbouring countries, including India, for any radar data that could help establish what became of the aircraft seen on Malaysian military screens.
General Rodzali Daud, the Malaysian air force chief, said on Wednesday that the military was still not certain that the aircraft its radar had detected was the missing jetliner, which took off with enough fuel to fly more than 4000 km.
New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post via SMH.COM.AU