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Focus on crew and passengers following confirmation MH370 diverted from course

The investigation into missing flight MH370 is focusing on its pilots, crew and passengers, following confirmation from Malaysia's premier that the jet looked to have been deliberately flown off course for many hours.

The search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 has been shifted from the South China Sea to a widely expanded area as far north as Kazakhstan and to the southernmost parts of the Indian Ocean.

The switch came as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed

days of speculation

that the plane's disappearance from civilian air traffic radar in the early hours of Saturday, March 8 was

no accident.

"In view of this latest development the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board," Razak said, confirming that investigators believed someone cut off the jet's communications reporting system, switched off its transponder and

steered it towards the west.

Aviation experts say that doing this would require a high level of flying experience and technical knowledge. Satellite data has shown the last transmission from the plane came almost seven hours after it disappeared.

"Despite media reports the plane was hijacked, I wish to be very clear, we are still investigating all possibilities as to what caused MH370 to deviate," Razak said.

Pilots' homes searched

On Saturday police searched the Kuala Lumpur homes of the plane's captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, according to the AP news agency, citing a security guard and local reporters.

Questions about the flight's crew, passengers and airport security were first raised hours after it vanished, when it was revealed that two men had boarded the plane using European passports which had been reported stolen in Thailand.

Investigators later

downplayed fears of terrorism

, saying they believed the men to be illegal migrants from Iran trying to get to Europe.

Painful wait for families

Most of the jet's 227 passengers came from China, which has repeatedly criticized Malaysia's handling of the disappearance. Chinese state news agency Xinhua described Najib's release of the new details as "painfully belated".

"And due to the absence - or at least lack - of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families," Xinhua said.

A total of 14 countries are involved in the

search operation

, using more than 100 ships and aircraft.

se/tj (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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