BANGKOK - The search for a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, which vanished last Saturday, has expanded -- with more seemingly conflicting information emerging about its last known position. Vessels from various coast guard agencies and navies, including the United States, are expanding the search across a vast swath of southern Asia for any trace of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The Boeing 777 was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. But the search for the aircraft, which was carrying 239 people, now includes areas far off its scheduled flight path.
Malaysia's Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Friday unspecified "circumstances" forced the search, which currently involves 13 countries, to expand to the Indian Ocean, thousands of kilometers from the spot where the aircraft vanished from civilian radar last week. He said the search has also been expanded to remote parts of the South China Sea.
"Together with our international partners we are now pushing further east into the South China Sea and further into the Indian Ocean," he announced.
India's coast guard is looking along the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in case any debris washed up there. Besides the Indian Ocean, its vessels and aircraft are also inspecting part of the Bay of Bengal.
Why so far away from the large jet's last known position? There are reports the plane continued to transmit routine data about its engines and performance to satellites long after the last radar contact with air traffic controllers. That suggests the plane could have remained in the air or was on the ground somewhere.
Malaysian officials stress they cannot confirm such information and that is why it would be irresponsible to end the search in the South China Sea.
The Reuters news agency quotes sources as saying military radar evidence suggests the plane was deliberately flown across the Malay peninsula towards the Andaman isle chain.
The mystery continues to baffle experienced airline pilots and other experts. Adding to the confusion and to the frustration of passengers' families have been conflicting statements and the delayed release of pertinent information by Malaysian authorities.
Since the jet disappeared on March 8 there have been few credible clues about what happened.
Potential eyewitness interviewed
Vietnamese authorities say they are studying information provided to them by an offshore oil rig worker, identified as Michael McKay of New Zealand.
Foreign affairs department director Nguyen Ngoc Hung, speaking to reporters in Vung Tau, says McKay's eyewitness account of seeing a burning jetliner above the South China Sea about 50 to 70 kilometers away from his position is being taken seriously.
Nguyen says he has forwarded the information to higher authorities and it will be studied and used in the search for Flight 370.
McKay declined to speak with reporters but an e-mail he sent Wednesday to his supervisors describes observing from the Songa Mercur drilling platform what he believed was the plane in the sky afire in one piece for about 10 to 15 seconds. This, he claims, was around the time the Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared.
Growing frustration among passengers' families
Many of the family members of those on the plane are growing frustrated with what they feel is incomplete information from Malaysian authorities. A man who identified himself as Gao spoke with media Friday after meeting Malaysian officials in Beijing.
"Their [Malaysian] spokespeople should be responsible for what they are saying and keep their promises, instead of giving us the impression that it is a rogue state and that it just makes irresponsible remarks without thinking," he said in Mandarin.
About two-thirds of the people on board were Chinese nationals, with the remainder from other Asian countries, Europe and North America.
The plane's disappearance has become one of the most puzzling cases in modern aviation history. Authorities have ruled nothing out, including a massive technical failure, hijacking, an explosion, or the possibility that the pilot wanted to commit suicide.