After 24 hours from its disappearance, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which took off from the airport of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday at 1:20 a.m. (12:20 p.m. EST Friday), is still being searched amid growing concerns that the missing plane may have been hijacked. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was bound for China and was due to land at Beijing airport at 6.30 a.m. (5.30 p.m. EST Friday), but it lost contact with Malaysian air traffic controller less than one after its departure.
Since yesterday, searching operations have been concentrating on the South China Sea, off the coast of Vietnam, after Vietnamese vessels reported oil slicks. However, no traces of wreckage have emerged so far and searches have been extended to the Gulf of Thailand.
The disappearance of the aircraft is becoming increasingly mysterious as flight experts point out that crashes usually happen during takeoff or landing operations. Furthermore, the pilots gave no signals of distress and cut off communication abruptly without any calls for help.
Rodzali Daud, Malaysian air force chief, said that preliminary investigations on the radars signals records revealed that the plane had left his flight path and turned back. To add to the mystery there is evidence that two of the 239 passengers on board were travelling with stolen passports belonging to Italian and Austrian citizens. At the moment it cannot be ruled out that the two men were travelling together, as their tickets were purchased at the same time from Chinese Southern Airlines, which shares the flight with Malaysian airlines.
Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera wrote on Saturday the Luigi Meraldi, 37, was listed among the passengers of the Malaysian Airlines missing plane. However, it has now emerged that the man is safe and sound and that he was issued a new passport after his old one was stolen in Thailand last year.
Similarly, after initial reports from news media in Austria about the presence of an Austrian national on board of the flight, the Foreign Ministry in Vienna said that the man was safe at home and that his passport was stolen during a journey in Thailand two years ago.
Evidence that the missing plane changed is flight path and was carrying two men travelling with stolen passports suggests that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 may have been hijacked on its route to China.
When asked about this possibility, Malaysian Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein told BBC that the FBI and other international agencies had joined the investigation and that all possibilities were being examined. He then added that international terrorism units from several countries had been activated. Meanwhile, at the airports of Beijing and Kuala Lumpur grieving relatives of the passengers are nervously waiting for updates and many of them are filled with anger for the lack of information authorities are able to provide.
The sudden disappearance of the plane is reminiscent of what happened in 2009 to an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean after a technical problem to which the pilots could not respond in time. After the accident it took weeks to find the first victims and the wreckage was finally recovered after almost two years.
While the disappeared Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 could have accidentally crashed, the presence of two men with stolen passports on board and the unannounced change of its flight path suggest that the missing plane may have been hijacked by terrorists.
By Stefano Salustri