Malaysia's announcement of MH370 crash before wreckage found draws criticism

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia drew criticism on Tuesday for its announcement that a missing passenger jet had been lost at sea, even before any wreckage was found.

A sombre Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Monday night that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board, had "ended in the southern Indian Ocean".

He cited fresh satellite tracking data and said the information was being shared "out of a commitment to openness and respect for the families, two principles which have guided this investigation".

MH370 Sequence of events map

The Malaysian authorities have come in for repeated criticism for perceived secretiveness or contradictory information since the plane fell off air traffic control screens on March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Mr Najib's announcement drew further flak. In Beijing, some relatives of passengers vented their anger, calling the Malaysian authorities "murderers".

And China's Deputy Foreign Minister demanded that the authorities in Kuala Lumpur hand over the new satellite data.

Malaysia Airlines was also criticised for informing some next-of-kin in a text message that the plane was lost with no survivors.

The airline said most families were told in advance of Mr Najib's statement in person and by telephone, with SMS used only as an additional means.

Ms Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics at the Singapore Management University, said the authorities' intentions were good but the means of breaking the news could have been improved.

"The use of SMS messages even for additional communication could have been rethought. I imagine every time a person looks at their phone they will be reminded of their loss," she told AFP.

Mr Paul Yap, an aviation lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, said Mr Najib should have delayed his announcement until debris confirmed to have come from the plane had been found.

Lt. Gen. Ramesh Chopra of the Indian Army said Malaysia announced the presumed ending of the plane before debris was obtained because Kuala Lumpur wanted to show the world “it is on the job” and hopeful of finding the plane in near future.

“Now many countries are going to the Indian Ocean to help Malaysia look for the plane. Of course, it is a difficult job as the areas being searched are very large. Indian Ocean is a place where hundreds of kilometers are nothing,” he told Xinhua.

MH370 Indian Ocean object sightings map

Online criticism abounded, together with messages of condolences for the victims - two-thirds of them from China.

"How can Malaysian government declare flight 'ended' in Indian Ocean but with no physical evidence?? #MH370 #dontbelieveit," one user posted.

"Malaysian airlines and government concealed and delayed information then tells news of dead relatives by text. #disgusting #MH370," another said.

A Malaysia Airlines spokesman denied the texting had been insensitive, saying counsellors had been with relatives gathered at hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing to offer support.

The Malaysian government, which has held daily press briefings, has insisted it is passing on information as promptly as it can.

Mr Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation consultant based in Jakarta, said Mr Najib's announcement marked a "sad day, but at the end of it, we have to be realistic".

Mr Soejatman said: "It was the right thing to do to go ahead and announce, but I understand the frustration of the people. Sadly, the Malaysian government is in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' kind of situation.

"They were criticised for waiting for verification because it meant delays in disseminating information, and now they are being criticised for releasing information as soon as they can."