Possible sighting of MH370 north-west of Penang as mystery and confusion deepens

The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 entered its fifth day on Wednesday but Malaysian authorities were no closer to explaining what happened to the plane or the 239 people on board.

They told a news conference that an aircraft was plotted on military radar at 2.15am on Saturday, 200 miles (320 km) north-west of Penang Island off Malaysia's west coast.

This would be 45 minutes after the Boeing 777-200 lost contact with air traffic control about 100 miles from Kota Baru at 1.30am. It had taken off for Beijing at 12.41am on Saturday from Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Royal Malaysian Air Force chief Rodzali Daud, however, said this was still to be confirmed by experts from the United States, and corroborated with radars of neighbouring countries.

"We are corroborating this...We are still working with the experts, it's an unidentified plot," he said.

He added that after the plot was discovered, the search and rescue operations were immediately widened. They are now being conducted over an area that is nearly 27,000 square nautical miles in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. The massive operations involved 42 ships and 39 aircraft from 12 countries.

Radar systems graphic

Until now, there has been no confirmed sighting of the plane or any debris.

Earlier on Wednesday, Tan Sri Rodzali denied saying military radar had tracked MH370 flying over the Straits of Malacca, adding to the confusion over the plane's whereabouts.

Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, speaking at the same news conference, said: "My heart reaches out to the families of the passengers and crew.

"And I give you my assurance we will not reduce the tempo and that we will not spare any effort to find the missing plane."

Mr Hishammuddin also said there was no chaos in Malaysia's handling of the search for the missing jetliner.

He said Prime Minister Najib Razak had announced on Saturday that the search operations would be expanded to the west of Peninsular Malaysia after a review of the military radar showed that the flight may have tried to turn back. He said this was done even while the military radar findings were still being analysed by experts and corroborated with radars of neighbouring countries.

The Malaysian government has been under the gun for not being transparent and truthful with information on the missing jet.

About 300 members of the media packed the auditorium of Sama-Sama Hotel next to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for the news conference which was delayed by more than two hours.

Dr Huang Huikang, China's envoy to Malaysia, was seated in the front row and was mobbed by the media before the start of the briefing.

Like the families of the passengers on board the flight, the media's patience too, seemed to be wearing thin when they bombarded Mr Hishammuddin with tough questions.

Several journalists demanded to know where and when was the last contact with the plane according to military radar.

When General Rodzali said the radar showed the last known time to be at 2.15am on Saturday, the journalists shouted "where? where? where?", demanding to know the exact location.

And why didn't the military intercept the plane?, they asked.

Chief of Armed Forces General Tan Sri Dato Seri Zulkifli Mohd Zin said it was because the plane was not classified as "hostile". He added that the military was also unsure if the aircraft captured by the recording was MH370 and not another plane. Even then, they would not take any risk and deployed vessels to search in the area.

"Where is the focus of your search? Can you confirm if the plane has turned back," asked one journalist.

"There is no clarity? There's lack of information," shouted another.

Yet another asked for the release of the radar data, to which Mr Hishammuddin said he would release the information on Thursday if it is confirmed that the plane captured by the military data showed MH370.

He added the immediate focus is to find the aircraft and black box.

"This is unprecedented what we are going through, coordinating so many countries together. We are looking at so many aircraft and so many countries to coordinate and a vast area for us to search. Each time that passes, I fear that the search and rescue becomes just a search but we will never give up hope," he said.