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Friday, October 21, 2016

By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — The mystery of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 deepened amid allegations that the airplane flew four hours more than originally thought and might have traveled more than one thousand miles away from where search and rescue teams are looking.

Citing U.S. national security sources, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that government personnel were pursuing the possibility that the plane was commandeered “with the intention of using it later for another purpose.” The newspaper also said that data transmitted by an onboard monitoring system to Rolls-Royce Plc., the engine manufacturer, suggested that the plane flew for up to five hours in total after its takeoff from Kuala Lumpur at 12:21 a.m. Saturday morning.

Malaysian officials at a press conference Thursday denied the story and said the last engine data was transmitted at 1:07 a.m., about 20 minutes before the aircraft disappeared from civilian radar screens.

Nevertheless, the Malaysians said they had expanded the search and rescue operation into India and the surrounding waters, the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and Arabian Sea. If in fact the Boeing 777 flew for five hours from Kuala Lumpur, it could have traveled 2,200 nautical miles, as far as the India-Pakistan border.

The latest twist only added to the frustration in a 12-nation search and rescue operation that now involves more than 80 ships, aircraft and satellites searching through much of Southeast Asia.

“The plane vanished in thin air,” said Malaysia’s acting transportation minister Hishamuddin Hussein at the press conference late Thursday in Kuala Lumpur. “We have looked at every lead and in most cases, I believe all the case we pursued, we have not found anything positive.”

Malaysian rescue planes early Thursday rushed to a location over the Gulf of Thailand, roughly halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City, where a Chinese satellite detected three large floating objects. However, no sign of the plane or the debris was discovered in the search and Hishamuddin said that the release of the satellite photos by a Chinese defense agency had been “a mistake.”

The flight carried 239 passengers and crew and was headed to Beijing.