Prime Minister Najib Razak's statement confirmed days of mounting speculation that the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was not accidental, refocusing the investigation into the flight's crew and passengers and underlining the massive task for searchers who already have been scouring vast areas of ocean.
"Clearly the search for (Flight) MH370 has entered a new phase," Najib said at a televised news conference.
Najib stressed that investigators were looking into all possibilities as to why the plane deviated so drastically from its original flight path, saying authorities could not confirm whether or not it was a hijacking. Earlier Saturday, a Malaysian government official called the plane's disappearance a hijacking, though he said no motive had been established and no demands had been made known.
"In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board," Najib told reporters, reading from a written statement but not taking any questions.
Communications DisabledExperts have previously said that whoever disabled the plane's communication systems and then flew the jet must have had a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. One possibility they have raised was that one of the pilots wanted to commit suicide.
The plane was carrying 239 people when it departed for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12:40 a.m. on March 8. The plane's communications with civilian air controllers were severed at about 1:20 a.m., and the jet went missing – heralding one of the most puzzling mysteries in modern aviation history.
Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane's communications systems – the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System – was disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said. Shortly afterward, someone on board then switched off the aircraft's transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.
Change In SearchThe prime minister then confirmed that Malaysian air force defense radar picked up traces of the plane turning back westward, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified.
Najib said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 a.m. – 7 hours and 31 minutes after takeoff. This was more than five hours later than the previous time given by Malaysian authorities as the possible last contact.
Airline officials have said the plane had enough fuel to fly for up to about eight hours.
"The investigations team is making further calculations which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after this last point of contact," Najib said.
He said authorities had determined that the plane's last communication with a satellite was in one of two possible "corridors" – a northern one from northern Thailand through to the border of the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and a southern one from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
Najib added that searching in the South China Sea, where the plane first lost contact, had ended.