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Chinese say no domestic terror ties in plane mystery

A Royal Australian Air Force crew member of an Orion AP-C3 scanned the sea west of the Malaysian peninsula on Tuesday.

RAAF photo via Associated Press

A Royal Australian Air Force crew member of an Orion AP-C3 scanned the sea west of the Malaysian peninsula on Tuesday.

SEPANG, Malaysia — As the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner spread out across an expanded area nearly the size of the continental United States, the Chinese government said Tuesday that it had ruled out the possibility that any of the Chinese citizens on the plane — about two-thirds of the 227 passengers — were terrorists, separatists, or malcontents who might have tried to hijack or destroy it.

Searching one possible flight path, Australia said it would focus its efforts in a specific stretch of the southern Indian Ocean, using computer models of the plane’s possible flight path that take into account undisclosed satellite data, wind conditions, and ocean currents and some assumptions about how fast it was flying and how much fuel it had left.

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“What we’re doing is producing our best estimate of the most likely place to search, but I would hasten to add it is very far from precise,” said John Young, general manager for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division. “Every attempt will be made to further refine the search area,” Young told reporters at a news conference in Canberra on Tuesday.

China’s public effort to narrow the range of possible suspects in the plane’s disappearance included a specific look at one Chinese citizen who belongs to the Uighur ethnic minority, a Turkic people living mostly in Xinjiang, a restive region in far western China.

Part of Xinjiang is included in the expanded search area for the missing plane. But the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, said in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday that Beijing had not received any relevant threats from Uighur separatist groups, and that the Uighur passenger had been cleared of suspicion.

“China has conducted a thorough investigation, and to date we have not found any signs that any passengers onboard the plane participated in destruction or terror attacks,” Huang said at a news briefing for Chinese reporters, according to a summary published online by a state-run newspaper, The People’s Daily.

“We can say that we have generally ruled out the possibility of Chinese passengers engaging in destruction or a terrorist attack,” Huang was quoted as saying.

The ambassador’s remarks were all the more striking because the Chinese government has often claimed that Uighur groups seeking autonomy or an independent homeland in Xinjiang have orchestrated acts of terrorism, including attempted attacks aboard domestic flights.

Huang’s announcement seemed likely to increase the pressure on investigators to determine whether the pilot or copilot of the missing jet, both Malaysians, or anyone else onboard was involved in its disappearance. Officials have said that the plane’s abrupt deviation from its normal flight path on March 8 most likely involved deliberate intervention by an experienced aviator, making the two men assigned to the cockpit — Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and his junior officer, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27 — focal points of attention.

Huang explicitly ruled out suspicions about Maimaitijiang Abula, an artist of Uighur ethnicity who was part of a Chinese government-approved delegation of artists who visited Malaysia. “Currently, there is no evidence to prove that he engaged in any terrorist or destructive activities,” Huang said, according to Chinese television news. “And nor has any organization or individual made political demands to the government concerning this incident.”

The Chinese government maintains extensive records and surveillance on its citizens, especially anyone with a reputation for discontent, and it would have used that information as the starting point for police inquiries into any potential suspects on the plane, according to Pan Zhiping, a professor at Xinjiang University who studies unrest in the region. Pan said he saw “no signs of Uighur involvement.”

“These background checks are relatively easy in China,” he said. “I think that the government felt that this search is already so large and so complicated that it would be helpful to publicly exclude at least one aspect, especially when there have been many rumors and media speculation about a connection to Xinjiang.”

Breaking from its usual reluctance to criticize friendly neighbors, the Chinese government has chided the Malaysian authorities and demanded more prompt and more accurate information about the investigation. “Currently, there’s no lack of information,” Huang, the ambassador, said Tuesday. “The main problem we confront is chaotic information, with all manner of speculation, even rumors, filling the heavens. It makes it impossible to think.”

US officials had said Monday that the sharp turn to the west that took the plane from its planned northeastward flight path was achieved using a computer system on the plane, and that the turn was most likely programmed into it by someone in the cockpit who was knowledgeable about airplane systems.

Malaysian officials have not publicly confirmed that information, but they have revised their account of events around the time the plane vanished from air traffic control communications.

Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian defense minister and acting transportation minister, said Tuesday that despite the revisions to the details of the chronology, investigators continued to think that the plane probably went off course because of something someone did intentionally, rather than mechanical failure or an accident.

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