Malaysia widens search for missing plane

By By The Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian authorities expanded their search for the missing jetliner westward toward India on

Thursday, saying it may have flown for several hours after its last contact with the ground.

That scenario would make finding the Boeing 777 a vastly more difficult task, and raises the possibility that searchers have

been looking in the wrong place for the plane and its 239 passengers and crew since it disappeared early Saturday en route

to Beijing.

In the latest in a series of false leads in the hunt, search planes were sent Thursday to search an area off the southern

tip of Vietnam where Chinese satellite images published on a Chinese government website reportedly showed three suspected

floating objects.

They saw only ocean.

"There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing," said acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Compounding the frustration, he later said the Chinese Embassy had notified the government that the images were released by

mistake and did not show any debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The plane left Kuala Lumpur and was flying northeast across the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea when it dropped

off civilian radar without any indication it was having any technical problems.

An international search effort is

methodically sweeping parts of the South China Sea. A roughly

similar-sized hunt is also

being conducted to the west in the Strait of Malacca because of

military radar sightings that might indicate the plane headed

that way after its last contact, passing over the Malay Peninsula.

The total area is around 35,800 square miles (92,600 square

kilometers), or about the size of Portugal.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper quoted

U.S. investigators on Thursday as saying they suspected the plane

remained in the

air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact, citing

data from the plane's engines that are automatically transmitted

to the ground as part of a routine maintenance program.

Hishammuddin said the government had

contacted Boeing and Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturer, and both said

the last engine

data was received at 1:07 a.m., around 23 minutes before the

plane's transponders, which identify it to commercial radar and

nearby planes, stopped working.

But asked if it were possible that the plane

kept flying for several hours, Hishammuddin said: "Of course, we can't

rule anything

out. This is why we have extended the search. We are expanding our

search into the Andaman Sea." The sea, part of the Indian

Ocean, is northwest of the Malay Peninsula.

He said Malaysia was asking for radar data

from India and other neighboring countries to see if they can trace it

flying northwest.

India plans to imminently deploy airplanes and ships in the

southern section of the sea, a senior Indian official said on

condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to

the media.

More than two-thirds of those on board the

plane were from China, which has shown impatience with the absence of

any results.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told reporters in Beijing on Thursday

that it he would like to see better coordination among countries

involved in the search.

The passengers' "families and friends are

burning with anxiety, the Chinese government and Chinese people are all

deeply concerned

about their safety," he said at the close of the annual session of

the country's legislature. "As long as there is a glimmer

of hope we will not stop searching for the plane."

He said China had deployed eight ships and was using 10 satellites to search for the plane.

Investigators have not ruled out any possible cause for the plane's disappearance.

Experts say a massive failure knocking out its electrical systems, while unlikely, could explain why its transponders, which

identify it to civilian radar systems and other nearby planes, were not working. Another possibility is that the pilot, or

a passenger, likely one with some technical knowledge, switched off the transponders in the hope of flying undetected.

The jet had enough fuel to reach deep into the Indian Ocean.

Malaysia's air force chief said Wednesday that an unidentified object appeared on military radar records about 200 miles (320

kilometers) northwest of Penang, Malaysia, and experts are analyzing the data in an attempt to determine whether the blip

is the missing plane.

Malaysia has received some criticism for its handling of the search, in part because it took several days to fully explain

why it couldn't state for sure whether the plane had turned back.

Officials say they are not hiding anything and are searching areas where the plane is most likely to be, while attempting

to establish its actual location.

"There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane just vanished," Hishammuddin said.

Experts say that if the plane crashed into

the ocean then some debris should be floating on the surface even if

most of the

jet is submerged. Past experience shows that finding the wreckage

can take weeks or even longer, especially if the location

of the plane is in doubt.