PHU QUOC ISLAND, VIETNAM— Vietnam temporarily scaled back its search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane Wednesday morning while blasting Malaysia for ignoring multiple requests for updates.
When asked if Vietnam was disappointed with Malaysia's silence, Vice Minister of Transport Pham Quy Tieu suggested that Malaysia hasn't done enough for passengers.
"In order to answer this question, I think you should ask the families of the people on that flight, they could better answer that," he said at a press briefing on this tourist island off the southwestern edge of Vietnam, where rescue teams had launched their searches.
Change in direction
The suspension of full scale operations followed press reports Tuesday that the Malaysian military tracked flight MH370 to the west coast of Malaysia, far from where the plane lost contact with air traffic control Saturday. The jet was carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it disappeared from radar screens in the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam.
Vietnam said it reached out to Malaysia twice for information but has not heard back.
"We're waiting to see if they need anything," Tieu said. "But we think, between last night and this morning, there's been a lot of information from the world media, but officially Malaysia has not been responding."
Besides China, whose citizens make up the majority of passengers, Vietnam has been a key search partner for Malaysia. As a precautionary measure, Vietnam will continue to monitor its air space for notable activity because Malaysia has not officially announced whether it's found flight MH370. Still, most of Vietnam's efforts are at least on pause.
"Today we announce that all air and naval forces now engaged in the airplane rescue mission have halted," said Pham Van Long, vice director of Vietnam's Southern Aviation Authority, also speaking at the command center here on Phu Quoc Island.
While Vietnam did not say the search was ending permanently, it is unlikely to resume looking for an aircraft that is believed to be near the Strait of Malacca. For Vietnam, the sudden tension with Malaysia could be a bittersweet coda to an aviation mystery that has perplexed the world.
After flight MH370's disappearance, Vietnam jumped to help in the pursuit of the missing jetliner’s whereabouts. Its efforts were a point of pride for the country, which carried no blame for the crisis but had a chance to make a notable contribution.
“It’s the responsibility of Vietnam to do its best to support our friends in this search," Tieu said at an earlier briefing.
Vietnam started with naval searches from islands and coastal points to the south, before moving to the air. In addition to airplanes, rescue teams donned orange life-vests and piled into a yellow Russian-made helicopter that took off twice daily for four-hour search missions from Phu Quoc Island. In the air, the team members scoured the waters through two open doors on either side of the chopper.
News that MH370 vanished also brought out rare positive public opinion in Vietnam toward China, which ruled Vietnam for 1,000 years. That has made Vietnam’s response to the Malaysian Airlines crisis all the more noticeable. Vietnamese joined the global outpouring of sympathy for the Chinese and other MH370 passengers’ plight with comments on news stories and social media. “I’ve constantly refreshed Twitter and news sites for updates,” one Vietnamese tweeted. “My heart goes out to all the families. #PrayForMH370.”
But as the search wore on, Vietnam began to attract criticism for a series of false leads, including its reported sightings of debris and oil slicks that turned out to be unconnected to the Malaysian aircraft.
At the airport in Beijing, the daughter of a Chinese passenger slammed Vietnamese authorities. "We hope the Chinese government sends search teams as soon as possible,” she told a crush of journalists. “We don't trust the Vietnamese people. They're not very capable.”
Empty-handed and exhausted
Vietnam started to lose confidence in the mission too, emerging from eight-hour searches empty-handed.
“From all the assessments so far, we anticipate very little hope of any good news for this flight,” Tieu said before news broke that the jetliner might actually be nowhere near Vietnam. He also said authorities were preparing for the worst-case scenario, should rescue teams find bodies instead of survivors.
While Vietnam is scaling back its efforts as attention shifts to western Malaysia, it is still pursuing possible clues as they are reported. On Wednesday, authorities dispatched an aircraft to investigate a burning object spotted by an oil rig worker off Vung Tau.
With the search shifting to include the Straits of Malacca, Malaysian authorities will be under more pressure to produce results.
“When you’ve got the world media breathing down your neck, you can’t be seen to be doing nothing,” said Owen Geach, commercial director of the International Bureau of Aviation. He added, "They have to leave no stone unturned."