As government and airline officials in Malaysia significantly expand their search area to find Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the jet that left Kuala Lumpur airport on March 8 destined for Beijing and vanished, India and Pakistan have weighed in on the mystery. Malaysian investigators, puzzled by this bizarre and unprecedented event, have offered a number of ideas as to what happened to the Boeing 777, including sabotage, hijacking and even suicide by the pilots. Reportedly, the airplane’s communications systems were disabled and its transponder switched off, raising a flurry of possible clues and conspiracy theories. They are also examining the backgrounds of the 239 people onboard, 227 passengers and 12 crew members, to discern any possible motive for the aircraft’s disappearance.
According to the flight manifest, the passenger list included 154 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, three Americans and two Canadians. Initially, the search for the aircraft covered only both sides of the Malaysian peninsula, the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. But now it encompasses a huge area, ranging from as far north as Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern regions of the Indian Ocean. The measure was adopted after investigators determined that the airplane was somehow diverted westward from its original trajectory.
A total of 26 countries fall under that vast search area, including India and Pakistan. However, both countries deny that the missing plane is anywhere in their territories or airspace, or that any of its citizens were somehow involved in its disappearance. “The idea that the plane flew through Indian airspace for several hours without anyone noticing is bizarre,” an Indian defense ministry official said, Reuters reported. “These are wild reports, without any basis.”
The Times of India reported that air traffic controllers at Kolkata, in eastern India, said the Malaysian vessel could not have avoided its radar detection and entered its airspace. "If an aircraft wants to avoid being seen, they can easily become invisible to civilian radar by switching off the transponder,” said Sugata Pramanik, the guild secretary of Indian air traffic controllers. "But it cannot avoid defense systems. The IAF [Indian Air Force] has radars in multiple installations across the country and it is inconceivable that none of them spotted the odd blip with no flight clearance.” India has nine air defense identification zones in the country which are monitored 24 hours per day to detect the presence of any unauthorized aircraft illegally entering Indian airspace.
Sushil Mondal, a guild member of Indian air traffic controllers, explained that if the IAF detected a plane that entered Indian skies without clearance, it would immediately take action. "There are times when the Air Force finds a blip that does not match a flight plan,” Mondal told The Times of India. "That usually happens when flight plans go missing at their end due to a system or link failure. They then immediately contact us for information. If the plane's flight plan isn't of [a] suspicious nature, a clearance is granted. Or else, it is asked to return to wherever it came from. In case, we too don't have any information of the aircraft, there will be trouble and the Air Force scramble jets to take the plane down. Nothing of the kind happened last Saturday [when MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur].”
Pakistan's top aviation official also denied speculation that Flight MH370 somehow ended up in his country. “It’s wrong, [the Malaysian] plane never came towards Pakistan,” the special assistant to the prime minister on aviation, Shujaat Azeem, told Dawn, an English-language Pakistani daily. “Pakistan's civil aviation radars never spotted this jet,” he said, adding that the jet was not even visible on its radars. “We have checked the radar recording for the period but found no clue about the ill-fated flight,” the Pakistani Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement.
Even the Taliban entered the controversy by denying any knowledge about the tragic flight. “It happened outside Afghanistan and you can see that even countries with very advanced equipment and facilities cannot figure out where it went,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan, Reuters reported. “So we also do not have any information as it is an external issue.” A commander for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) took a poetic view, saying he dreamed his organization had such capabilities as diverting commercial airliners. “We wish we had an opportunity to hijack such a plane,” he told Reuters.
Separately, Indian intelligence officials have cleared their five nationals who were on aboard the doomed flight from any complicity in its fate. The Press Trust of India reported that the five Indians on MH370 were identified as Chetna Kolekar, 55, Swanand Kolekar, 23, and Vinod Kolekar, 59, all from one family; Chandrika Sharma, 51, and Kranti Shirsatha, 44.
However, some have speculated that the possible hijacking of an airplane (assuming that is what happened to MH370) might serve as a precursor to a terrorist attack on an Indian city. That scenario was suggested by former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who tweeted: "Direction, fuel load and range now lead some to suspect hijackers planned a 9/11-type attack on an Indian city."
IAF officials scoffed at the notion that a hijacked plane could be used to drop missiles on India, citing that India has blanket radar coverage over the entire country. "In this case, the aircraft will have to enter India undetected for long hours before carrying out such an attack and this would be impossible due to the extensive radar coverage in the Northeast and the Western sectors of the country," a senior IAF official told Press Trust of India. "If the aircraft [does] not [identify] itself, it is intercepted and directed to follow our instructions. If it does not comply, it can be destroyed also because you don't know its intentions and it may even carry out bombing or other kind of attacks.”
P.V. Naik, a former IAF Air Chief Marshal, also dismissed the 9/11 attack angle. “The [Malaysian] aircraft was flying at a height of around 35,000 feet and it is very difficult to go undetected at that altitude. ... It is difficult because you need proper planning and you cannot do something like this flying at those heights," he said. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid also rejected such speculation, saying: “I don’t think we have gone that far.”