Satellite images on a Chinese government website show suspected debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner floating off the southern tip of Vietnam, near the plane’s original flight path, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday.

The revelation could provide searchers with a focus that has eluded them since the plane disappeared with 239 people aboard just hours after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early Saturday. Since then, the search has covered 92,600 square kilometres, first east and then west of Malaysia and even expanded toward India on Wednesday.

The Chinese sighting, if confirmed, would be closer to where the frantic hunt started.

The Xinhua report said the images from around 11 a.m. on Sunday appear to show “three suspected floating objects” of varying sizes, the largest about 24 by 22 metres.

The report includes co-ordinates of a location in the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam and east of Malaysia. The images originally were posted on a national defence technology website.

With the passage of time since the satellite images were taken, it is far from certain that whatever they show would be in the same location now.

No other governments have confirmed the Xinhua report, which did not say when Chinese officials became aware of the images and associated them with the missing plane.

On Wednesday, five days after the plane went missing while on an overnight flight to Beijing, Malaysia asked India to join the expanding search for the missing Boeing 777 near the Andaman Sea — far to the northwest of its last reported position and a further sign that authorities have no idea where the plane might be more than four days after it vanished.  Some 43 ships and 39 aircraft from at least eight nations are now scouring an area of 92,600 square kilometres (35,800 square miles) to the east and west of Peninsular Malaysia.

As criticism of their inability to find any trace of the jet has mounted, the Malaysian authorities have repeatedly insisted that they were doing their best to solve the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

But the government and the airline have also offered imprecise, incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, with civilian officials contradicting military leaders.

On Tuesday,  the head of Malaysia’s air force, General Rodzali Daud, was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper saying the military had received “signals” on Saturday that after the aircraft stopped communicating with ground controllers, it changed course sharply, from heading northeast to heading west.

According to this new account, the last sign of the plane was recorded at 2:40 a.m. Saturday, and the aircraft was then near Pulau Perak, an island more than 160 kilometres off the western shore of the Malaysian Peninsula.

That assertion stunned aviation experts as well as officials in China, who had been told again and again that the authorities lost contact with the plane more than an hour earlier, when it was on course over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the peninsula. But the new account seemed to fit with the decision on Monday, previously unexplained, to expand the search area to include waters west of the peninsula.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flightglobal, a news and data service for the aviation sector, said the Malaysian government seemed evasive and confused, and he questioned why, if the remarks attributed to Gen. Daud were true, it took so long for the government to reveal evidence about a western flight path.

“The relatives of the people who’ve gone missing are being deprived of information about what’s happened to the airplane – that for me is the issue,” he said.

Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, offered a third, conflicting account. In a statement, the airline said authorities were “looking at a possibility” that the plane was headed to Subang, an airport outside Kuala Lumpur that handles mainly domestic flights. -NYT

 

SOME KEY QUESTIONS ABOUT MH370'S DISAPPEARANCE

What do we know so far?

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 a.m. local time on Saturday and was slated to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. that same day. The Boeing 777-200ER carried 239 people, including 12 crew and 227 passengers. Flying in clear weather, the flight lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control in Malaysia at about 1:30 a.m., without any distress signal. Malaysia Airlines posted the first statement on its website about the aircraft’s disappearance on Saturday at 7:30 a.m.

Countries involved in the search effort include Malaysia, China, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam and the United States.

What was the plane’s intended path?

The flight path called for the plane to depart from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, head north over the Gulf of Thailand, go over Vietnam and then onward toward Beijing. After departing at 12:41 a.m. on Saturday, the plane first appeared on radar at 12:43 a.m. In one of its first statements, Malaysia Airlines reported that air traffic control lost contact at 2:40 a.m., but that later got changed to about 1:30 a.m. The timing is important because to help track down the missing plane, authorities need to pinpoint the last reported contact.

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Where do officials believe the aircraft went?

The search first centred on waters in the Gulf of Thailand and focused on the theory of catastrophic mechanical failure that led to the aircraft disintegrating in the air while above the inlet of the South China Sea.

But the Malaysian military is now investigating whether the plane veered off its intended flight path and instead headed west over the Strait of Malacca, a bustling shipping channel located west of Malaysia.

Was it terrorism?

Terrorism hasn’t been ruled out, but there hasn’t been evidence so far of any terror plot, either.

While there has been much suspicion over two passengers who used stolen passports, police say the two passengers were Iranians who don’t appear to have links to terrorist groups. One of the two men was 19 years old and was using a stolen Austrian passport in his quest to move to Germany. The other person had a stolen Italian passport. The two men flew to Kuala Lumpur on Iranian passports before using the stolen ones to catch Flight MH370.

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