The Malaysian military says it has radar evidence showing the missing Boeing 777 jetliner changed course and made it to the Malacca Strait, hundreds of miles away from the last location reported by civilian authorities.
The development injects new mystery into the investigation of the flight’s disappearance.
Local newspaper Berita Harian quoted Malaysian air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying radar at a military base had detected the airliner near Pulau Perak, at the northern approach to the strait.
A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed the report on Tuesday and also said the aircraft was believed to be flying low.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
More than three days after the Boeing 777 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, no trace of the plane has been found in waters between Malaysia and Vietnam that have been scoured by more than 40 planes and ships from at least 10 nations.
The plane, carrying 239 people, dropped off radar less than an hour into the flight without sending out a distress signal. Authorities have said it may have attempted to turn back to Kuala Lumpur, but they expressed surprise that it would do so without informing ground control.
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that search and rescue teams expanded their scope to the Malacca Strait between Malaysia’s western coast and Indonesia’s Sumatra island – the opposite side of Malaysia from the plane’s last known location.
To reach the strait, a busy shipping lane, the plane would have had to cross over the country, presumably within the range of radar.
CBS News correspondent Chip Reid reports that the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam are relatively shallow. But shallow water presents its own problems – tides and currents are stronger, scattering debris more quickly. Shallow water can also confuse sonar, sound waves used to locate objects on the ocean floor.
Oceanographer David Gallo led the 2009 search for Air France Flight 447, which went down in deep water in a remote section of the Atlantic Ocean. Search teams located the wreckage within five days but it took another two years to the flight data recorders in an underwater mountain range,
“I always like to think that we need to start by finding the haystack, and then we can look for the bits of the needle in that haystack and in this case the haystack is huge because we just don’t have the clues,” Gallo told CBS News.
An earlier statement said the western coast of Malaysia was “now the focus,” but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight. It didn’t elaborate. Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the search remained “on both sides” of the country.