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Asia rallies to find missing airliner
By Our Correspondents

Southeast Asian countries, China and the US have put territorial conflict aside to join the search for a Malaysian airliner that went missing with 239 people on over the South China Sea on Saturday.

Dozens of aircraft and ships are contributing the search for the airline, including crews from Vietnam, China, Singapore, Indonesia, the United States, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines, Malaysian Civil Aviation Chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said on Monday. Abdul Rahman told reporters in Kuala Lumpur: "We are every hour, every second looking at every area of the sea."

No wreckage from the plane, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by state-owned Malaysian Airline System (MAS), has been found

and the 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard flight MH370 are presumed dead. The flight had left Kuala Lumpur at 12.41 am local time Saturday, and should have landed in Beijing at 6.30 am.

Abdul Rahman said authorities have covered a radius more than 50 nautical miles (about 93 kilometers) of where Flight 370 was last know to be, including in Malaysian and Vietnamese waters. The area to the north of the Strait of Malacca was also searched in case the aircraft, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, had turned back towards Malaysian airspace.

The US has sent two naval ships and an aircraft equipped with long-range radar to help in the search for the aircraft, while the Philippines said it was sending three navy patrol boats and a surveillance plane to an area some 153 nautical miles from Vietnam's Tho Chu Island, about 55 nautical miles southwest of the famous resort island of Phu Quoc. Vietnamese Navy Admiral Ngo Van Phat told Tuoi Tre newspaper that military radar indicated the airplane may have crashed in the area.

Late on Sunday, the Vietnamese authorities said possible debris from the plane had been spotted, but it was later revealed to be unrelated to the flight. Large oil slicks - both between 16 kilometers and 19 kilometers long and 500 meters apart - seen near Tho Chu Island have yet to be confirmed as jet fuel.

Malaysian Airline System said it would fly any Chinese family members of passengers to Kuala Lumpur, as some had indicated they wanted to be there for further updates. The airline said earlier that 153 of the 227 passengers were from China.

Speculation over the causes of the crash has ranged from mechanical failure to terrorism, though the US Federal Bureau of Investigation stressed there was no evidence of foul play as yet. Interpol said in a statement that two people on board had used fake identities, while US law enforcement sources disclosed that the Austrian and Italian passports used by the passengers had been stolen in Thailand. A US intelligence official said the use of fake passports did not prove a definitive link to terrorism as the cause of the aircraft's disappearance.

New York Republican Representative Peter King, who is a member of the House Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, said: "It could well turn out just to have been a terrible accident. We are not saying it's terrorism, but we have to do everything we can to rule it out."

The presence of so many navies just outside the sweeping section of the South China Sea where China is pressing territorial claims would normally generate high diplomatic tension. This time their only motivation is the hope of finding passengers and crew members. Because no wreckage has been located, the legal jurisdiction for the crash has not been determined and no government or agency is formally in charge.

A senior US law-enforcement official told Reuters that the FBI has not sent agents to Kuala Lumpur to assist in the investigation, though representatives from other agencies and the Chicago-based plane-maker Boeing are expected to arrive on Monday.

An authoritative US government source cited by Reuters said the United States has extensively reviewed imagery taken by its spy satellites for evidence of a mid-air explosion, but had seen none. US satellite coverage of the region is thorough, the source said.

Malaysian officials investigating the disappearance said the lack of significant wreckage suggested that the plane could have disintegrated in mid-flight. If the plane had plunged intact, breaking up only on impact with the water, search teams would have expected to find a fairly concentrated pattern of debris.

Malaysian's air force chief on Sunday said that military and civilian radar indicated the airline had made a turn back. The Boeing-777 had reached cruising altitude when it disappeared from radar screens around 40 minutes after taking off from Kuala Lumpur. The aviation term "turn back" can apply to the return of an aircraft to the airport of origin as a result of a malfunction or suspected malfunction of any item on the aircraft, or it can mean a more general deviation from course.

Aviation Week reported that the disappearance could be the worst air accident involving Boeing's 777 airliner since the aircraft entered service in 1995. The magazine noted that two Boeing 777 hulls have been lost - a 2008 British Airways crash landing at Heathrow, later linked to a fuel system icing issue, and an Asiana Airlines crash-landing last year in San Francisco, which killed three people.

Some media reports are comparing the situation to the crash of Air France flight 447 from Rio to Paris in 2009. That plane crashed after an high-altitude stall caused by the flight crew reacting incorrectly to an indication of a loss of air-speed. While the Air France wreckage took two years to find, the waters where the Malaysian airliner is believed to have crashed are shallow, so any wreckage will likely lie within probable reach of ship sensors. The narrow seas are also visited by thousands of fishing boats.

Malaysian Airline is considered a safe carrier. Its most recent incident was the crash-landing in Sabah last October of a small aircraft run by its MASwings unit, in which two people were killed. The airline's worst crash was in 1977, when 100 people died after a reported hijacking, according to the Malay Mail.

Even so, the state-owned airline loss-making has struggled to recover from the global financial crisis and to compete with the region's new budget airlines, and it has lost more than US$1 billion over its past three financial years. Its share price was down as much as 16% in Monday trading, after declining almost 40% from its 12-month high last May even before the weekend loss of Flight 370. The shares have lost around 80% of their value over the past five years.

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