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Confusion over plane’s route frustrates families and search

SEPANG, Malaysia — Malaysian authorities now believe that a jetliner missing since Saturday may have radically changed course around the time that it lost contact with ground controllers, news that added to the air of confusion and disarray surrounding the investigation and search operation. But they gave conflicting accounts of the apparent course change and of what may have happened afterward.

As criticism mounted of the Malaysian authorities’ inability to find any trace of the jet, they have repeatedly insisted that they were doing their best to solve the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with scarce data and almost no precedent. Yet the government and the airline have also released imprecise, incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate information, with civilian officials sometimes contradicting military leaders.

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On Tuesday, three days after the plane disappeared while on an overnight flight to Beijing, the country’s air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper as saying the military received “signals” on Saturday that after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it turned from heading northeast to heading west, lowered its altitude, and flew hundreds of miles across Peninsular Malaysian and out over the Strait of Malacca before the tracking went blank.

The air force chief did not say what kind of signals the military had tracked. But his remarks raised questions about whether the military had noticed the plane as it flew across the country, and about when it informed civilian authorities. According to the general’s account, the aircraft was near Pulau Perak, an island more than 100 miles off the western shore of the Malaysian peninsula, when the last sign of it was recorded at 2:40 a.m. Saturday.

That assertion stunned aviation experts as well as people in China, who had been told again and again that the authorities lost contact with the plane more than an hour earlier, when it was on course over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the peninsula. But the new account seemed to fit with the decision on Monday, previously unexplained, to expand the search area to include waters west of the peninsula.

Most of the aircraft’s 227 passengers were Chinese, and the new account prompted an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media sites. “Malaysia, how could you hide something this big until now?” said one posting on Sina.com Weibo, a service similar to Twitter.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector, said the Malaysian government seemed evasive and confused, and he questioned why, if the remarks attributed to Daud were true, the government took so long to reveal evidence about a westward flight path.

“The relatives of the people who’ve gone missing are being deprived of information about what’s happened to the airplane — that for me is the issue,” he said. “If somebody knows something and isn’t telling, that’s not nice under the circumstances.”

Adding to the confusion, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said that he had checked with senior military officials, who told him there was no evidence that the plane had recrossed the Malaysian peninsula, only that it may have attempted to turn back.

“As far as they know, except for the air turn-back, there is no new development,” said Tengku Sariffuddin, adding that the reported remarks by the air force chief were “not true.”

Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, offered a third. In a statement, the airline said authorities were “looking at a possibility” that the plane was headed for Subang, an airport outside Kuala Lumpur that handles mainly domestic flights.

So far only the basic facts of the first 40 minutes of Flight 370 are well established. The plane, a Boeing 777, left Kuala Lumpur’s main international airport about 12:40 a.m. local time with 239 people aboard, bound for Beijing. By 1:21 a.m. it was about midway between the Malaysian peninsula and the southern coast of Vietnam, cruising at 35,000 feet in good weather, when the transponder on the plane stopped transmitting tracking data to Flightradar24, a global tracking system for commercial aircraft. Malaysia Airlines has said that ground controllers had their last radio communication with the pilots about 1:30 a.m., but it has not given a precise time.

Without stating why, Malaysian authorities expanded the search area to the west on Monday, implying that they believed there was a strong chance the plane had traveled there. No similar expansion was made to the east or the south.

If the flight traveled west over Peninsular Malaysia, as the air force chief was quoted saying, it would have flown very close to one of Flightradar’s beacons in the city of Kota Bharu. But Mikael Robertsson, the cofounder of Flightradar24, said the jet never sent a signal to that receiver, which means that if the plane did fly that way, its transponder had either been knocked out of service by damage or had been shut down.

Malaysian officials said they have not ruled out any possible explanation for the airplane’s disappearance — not mechanical failure, pilot error, crew malfeasance, hijacking, terrorism or anything else. The absence of physical evidence from the aircraft left plenty of scope for speculation, including questions about two men who boarded the plane using stolen passports and one-way tickets bought in Thailand. Interpol officials said on Tuesday that it appeared likely that the two men were illegal migrants with no link to terrorism.

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