Malaysian officials have officially expanded the search for missing flight MH370 to the Indian Ocean. However, officials declined to comment on US reports that the plane had flown on for hours after losing contact.
"The aircraft is still missing, and the search area is expanding," said Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Friday during a press conference in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur.
"Together with our international partners, we are pushing further east into the South China Sea and further into the Indian Ocean," he said following a White House statement that mentioned this expansion as a possibility.
Hishammuddin stressed that he could offer no new information on what had happened to the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane.
Indian aircraft equipped with heat sensors have been flying over hundreds of uninhabited islands in the Andaman sea and will extend their search farther west into the Bay of Bengal, Indian officials said on Friday.
Two Indian air force reconnaissance planes flew over the Andaman and Nicobar islands after they and four Indian ships searched the surrounding seas without finding any sign of the missing plane, Indian military spokesman Harmit Singh said.
The Boeing 777 last made contact halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, less than an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing with 239 people on board.
Evidence suggests the plane may have turned off course toward the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which form India's most isolated state. Most of the archipelago's 572 islands are uninhabited.
Hussein refused to address a report in the Wall Street Journal, citing unidentified US officials, that the plane had flown on for four hours after vanishing from air traffic control radar.
The report said aviation investigators and national security officials had come to this conclusion based on "data automatically downloaded and sent to the ground" from the engines of the Boeing plane, which is part of routine maintenance programs.
"We do not want to be drawn into specific remarks that unnamed officials have reportedly made in the media," he said.
"We want nothing more than to find the plane as quickly as possible. But the circumstances have forced us to widen our search," he added.
Investigation 'not normal'
Hussein insisted that the main reason for widening the search field was the failure to locate the plane in the areas searched so far.
"A normal investigation becomes narrower with time," he said.
"But this is not a normal investigation. In this case, the information we have forces us to look further and further afield."
The search effort has been repeatedly dogged by false leads and conflicting information, drawing mounting criticism against Malaysian rescue officials.
tj,hc/ipj (AFP, AP)