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Malaysia Airlines plane: Missing jet last detected hundreds of miles off course

As the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane -- Flight MH370 -- entered its fourth day, the Malaysian military issued a statement noting that the airplane, which was scheduled to land in Beijing, China, for some reason changed direction. The military said that the last known location of the Boeing 777 jet was over the Strait of Malacca, hundreds of miles from the last known position plotted by civilian aviation authorities.

Reuters reported (via Yahoo News) March 11 that radar recordings not only indicate that the Malaysia Airlines plane had altered course but was nowhere near the position last recorded by civilian radar -- headed east over the South China Sea nearly midway between Malaysia and Vietnam. The latest position places the jet much farther west and on the opposite side of the Malaysian mainland.

Authorities, military and civilian, are at a loss as to why the airliner, carrying 239 passengers and crew members, was so far off course. Local newspaper Berita Harian quoted Malaysian air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying radar at a military base detected the now missing plane over the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, a narrow body of water that separates the western shore of Malaysia from the eastern side of the island of Sumatra (Indonesia).

"After that, the signal from the plane was lost," Daud is quoted as saying.

On condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information, a senior military official confirmed the military report, noting that the plane was flying low.

Planes flying at a low enough altitude can go undetected by many radar systems, a fact that will have not gone unnoticed by those who believe the sudden disappearance of Flight MH370 on Saturday may have had something to do with a hijacking. The Malaysia military have been in contact with international counter-terrorism agencies due to the discovery that at least two passengers boarded the airplane using stolen passports. That the aircraft was last spotted hundreds of miles from its last known location might also lend the hijacking and/or terrorist threat theory credibility.

The latest report from the Malaysian military supports an earlier report that backtracking over the radar records had indicated that the Malaysia Airlines plane had changed course and may have been attempting to turn around (possibly to return to its location of departure in Kuala Lumpur).

Being hundreds of miles off course and far to the west of its point of destination would certainly help explain why there has been virtually no sign of a downed aircraft in the South China Sea where extensive searches -- involving as many as 40 ships and planes from 10 different nations -- have been conducted since Flight MH370 disappeared from radar without so much as a distress call.

So now the mystery of the missing Boeing 777 has added questions: Why was Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 so far off course? Where was it headed? And why has there been no distress signal?

Malaysia civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said Tuesday the search for the missing plane remained "on both sides" of the country.

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