KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (USA TODAY) — Ships and aircraft from 12 countries are now hunting — on both sides of the Malaysian peninsula — for the Malaysia Airlines jet missing since Saturday, but authorities said the huge effort had found no physical trace of the plane by early Wednesday evening.
Officials also said that the last communication received from Flight 370 before it vanished appeared to indicate that everything on board was normal. "All right, roger that," someone on the plane replied to air traffic control, authorities said, according to a BBC report.
The search has been expanded from the South China Sea, on the east side of Malaysia, where the expected flight path ran, to the west side, the Straits of Malacca, after a military radar indicated a plane was flying there, 200 miles northwest of Penang, until the radar signal ended at 2:15 a.m. Saturday morning, said Malaysia air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud. The data indicate a "possible turn back" from the expected flight path of Flight 370, he told an evening press briefing.
However, that aircraft, on the west side, may not be the missing flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but was a strong enough lead for Malaysia to move additional search and rescue assets to the Straits of Malacca Wednesday, said Gen. Seri Zulkifli Mohdzin, Malaysia's chief of armed forces.
Authorities are working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to confirm if the plane is the missing MH370, said Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. To pinpoint the plane's last location, U.S. experts will assist Malaysian officials in analyzing both civilian and military data, he said.
The last civilian radar data ended at 1:30 a.m., on the east side of the peninsula, said the country's civilian aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman. The physical search expanded Wednesday to both coasts and a total area of almost 27,000 square nautical miles, involving 42 ships and 39 aircraft, said Hishammuddin. The operation includes the USS Pinckney, USS Kidd and USNS John Ericsson, which are operating off the east side of the Malaysian peninsula.
Despite widespread confusion and complaints about contradictory statements by different government departments, Hishammuddin defended the Malaysian government's record in handling the crisis. "Our information is consistent, it's transparent, we have nothing to hide," he said.
Authorities here appear to be working hard to get results they can verify and release, but confusion has followed contradictory statements by some of the multiple government agencies and the Malaysian military, working together with several Asian neighbors and the U.S. Navy, involved in the search for the plane and investigation into its disappearance.
Local media eagerly report every possible new lead and apparent government quote. On several occasions now, government officials have later made denials or given remarks that contradict earlier statements and information from colleagues in other departments, such as on whether some passengers booked the flight but did not board. There were 239 passengers and crew on board the plane when it disappeared.
"There's too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing. "We will not give it up as long as there's still a shred of hope."
With the world's attention on their country, some Malaysians wish the government would find a better public communicator to run the packed daily press briefings. "The quality and competency of the officials involved are somewhat lacking," Tan Eng Bee wrote in a letter published Wednesday in the New Straits Times newspaper.
Prime Minister Najib Razak joined a minute of silence and prayers for the missing at the start of proceedings at the lower house of Malaysia's parliament Tuesday.