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 Pilots become focus of Malaysia Airlines investigation

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PostSubject: Pilots become focus of Malaysia Airlines investigation   Sun Mar 16, 2014 9:27 am

Published March 16, 2014

The focus of the investigation into the fate of a Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared from radar screens and lost contact with air traffic controllers last week shifted dramatically to the aircraft's two pilots after Malaysia's Prime Minister announced Saturday that someone appeared to have deliberately diverted the plane from its flight path, but kept it in the air for a number of hours after it vanished.

Malaysian investigators Sunday were examining a flight simulator taken from the home of one of the pilots, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah and investigating engineers who may have had contact with the plane before it took off.

Police on Saturday went to the Kuala Lumpur homes of both Zaharie and his 27-year-old co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, a guard and several local reporters told The Associated Press. Malaysia's Transport Ministry confirmed that both houses had been searched in a statement Sunday. It didn't say whether this was the first time they had done this since the plane went missing eight days ago.

Britain's Mail on Sunday, citing police sources, reported that Zaharie was an "obsessive" supporter of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of sodomy. The Mail reported that Malaysian authorities fear that Zaharie may have been upset enough by Ibrahim's imprisonment to hijack his own aircraft as a form of political protest.

Zaharie, who joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and had more than 18,000 hours of flying experience, was known as an avid aviation enthusiast who had set up an elaborate flight simulator at home. The Mail reported that investigators had already examined two laptops from Zaharie's home, one of which is believed to contain data from the simulator.

Fariq was contemplating marriage after having just graduated to the cockpit of a Boeing 777. He has drawn scrutiny after the revelation that he and another pilot invited two female passengers to sit in the cockpit during a flight in 2011.

Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday someone severed communications with the ground and deliberately diverted Flight 370 back over the Malay Peninsula after it departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on March 8.

Najib 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.

The air force has yet to explain why it didn't spot the plane flying over the country, and respond. The search was initially focused on the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, where the plane severed its communication links. That search has now ended.

"One that thing that does bother me greatly is the fact that unidentified aircraft could navigate back over Malaysia and out to sea without a physical or material response to that fact," Britain-based aviation security consultant Chris Yates told The Associated Press. "They were not watching."

Satellite data suggested the plane flew for at least 7 1/2 hours -- more than six hours after the last radio contact -- and that it could have reached as far northwest as Kazakhstan or deep into the southern Indian Ocean, making the hunt by 12 nations involving more than 100 planes and ships one of the largest in aviation history. Given that the northern route would take the plane over several countries, experts thought a southern path over one of the most remote stretches of water much more likely.

The southern Indian Ocean is one of the most remote stretches of water in the world, the third deepest and has little radar coverage. The wreckage might take months -- or longer -- to find, or might never be located.

There appeared to be some confusion Sunday as India said it had stopped looking for the plane while waiting for confirmation from Malaysia on where to look. Malaysia's acting transport minister tweeted he was in meetings to decide the "next course of action" after Saturday's revelations.

Meanwhile, Britain's Sunday Telegraph reported that investigators were examining whether the jet's disappearance was tied to a 9/11-style plot masterminded by Al Qaeda's Khalid Sheik Mohammad. Such a plot was mentioned by a British-born Saajid Badat earlier this week at the New York trial of Usama bin Laden's son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.

Badat said that a Malaysia-based Al Qaeda cell of four or five people had planned to take control of a plane, using a shoe bomb to gain access to the cockpit. He added that he had met the jihadists, one of whom claimed he was a pilot, at a terror camp in Afghanistan and given them a shoe bomb for use. The Sunday Telegraph reported that one target of the attack may have been the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, formerly the tallest buildings in the world.

The Sunday Telegraph also reported that Badat, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his part in a conspiracy to blow up a transatlantic flight with shoe bomber Richard Reid, first made claims that the plot existed in 2012. However, British security experts called Badat's evidence "credible," with one telling the paper "These spectaculars take a long time in the planning."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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