KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The missing Malaysian jetliner was deliberately diverted and continued flying for more than six hours after severing contact with the ground, meaning it could have gone as far northwest as Kazakhstan or into the Indian Ocean's southern reaches, Malaysia's leader said Saturday.
Prime Minister Najib Razak's statement confirmed days of mounting speculation that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Beijing more than a week ago was not accidental. It also refocused the investigation into the flight's crew and passengers, and underlined the complicated task for searchers who already have been scouring vast areas of ocean.
"Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase," Najib said at a televised news conference.
Najib stressed that investigators were looking into all possibilities as to why the Boeing 777 deviated so drastically from its original flight path, saying authorities could not confirm whether it was a hijacking. Earlier Saturday, a Malaysian official said the plane had been hijacked, though he added that no motive had been established and no demands had been made known.
"In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board," Najib told reporters, reading from a written statement but not taking any questions.
Police on Saturday went to the Kuala Lumpur homes of both the pilot and co-pilot of the missing plane, according to a guard and several local reporters. Authorities have said they will investigate the pilots as part of their probe, but have released no information about how they are progressing.
Experts have previously said that whoever disabled the plane's communication systems and then flew the jet must have had a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. One possibility they have raised was that one of the pilots wanted to commit suicide.
The plane was carrying 239 people when it departed for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12:40 a.m. on March 8. Its communications with civilian air controllers were severed at about 1:20 a.m., and the jet went missing — heralding one of the most puzzling mysteries in modern aviation history.
Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane's communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System — was disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft's transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.
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.
"These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane," Najib said.
Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air traffic controllers at this point, onboard equipment continued to send "pings" to satellites.
The prime minister said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 a.m. — 7 hours and 31 minutes after takeoff. This was more than five hours later than the previous time given by Malaysian authorities as the possible last contact.
Airline officials have said the plane had enough fuel to fly for up to about eight hours.
"The investigations team is making further calculations which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after this last point of contact," Najib said.
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