The focus in the hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has turned again to events surrounding the final message received from the cockpit, and a crucial 30 minute window which could be the key to unlocking the mystery of how the jet vanished nine days ago.
On Sunday, it seemed clear that one of the plane's communications systems was actively disabled before air traffic controllers received a voice message from someone on the plane saying: “All right, good night”.
It appeared that whoever said those words, in a calm voice, had already begun actions to evade detection from authorities on the ground – and the Malaysian air force's chief Major General Affendi Buang told reporters that the timings clearly “tell you something” about the deliberate nature of the diversion”.
Yet yesterday the search again degenerated into confusion when the country's acting transport minister contradicted the account of the prime minister on the crucial communication timings.
On Saturday, Najib Razak stated that the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which transmits key information about the plane to the ground, had been deliberately switched off while the plane was still flying over Malaysian territory north of Kuala Lumpur. The implication was that voice contact with the flight deck had taken place after the shutdown.
But yesterday, the transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said: “The last ACARS transmission was 1:07am. It was supposed to transmit at 1:37am but that never happened.” Therefore no conclusion can be drawn that the last voice transmission, at 1:19am, took place after the shutdown began.
Hussein also revealed that the initial search of the homes of Captain Zaharie Shah and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid took place on March 9, now more than a week ago and just one day after the disappearance.
He also revealed for the first time that the last words were thought to be spoken by the First Officer. “Initial investigation indicates it was the co-pilot who spoke,” he said.
The airline's chief executive too said yesterday that the co-pilot spoke the last words heard from the cockpit, as investigators consider suicide by the captain or first officer as one possible explanation for the disappearance.
The authorities continue to urge the public not to jump to conclusions about any crew members based on the patchy details that emerge regarding the moments before the Boeing 777 disappeared.
Airline chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya also told a news conference that it was unclear exactly when one of the plane's automatic tracking systems had been disabled, appearing to contradict the weekend comments of government ministers.
Suspicions of hijacking or sabotage had hardened further when officials said on Sunday that the last radio message from the plane - an informal "all right, good night" - was spoken after the system, known as "ACARS", was shut down.
"Initial investigations indicate it was the co-pilot who basically spoke the last time it was recorded on tape," Ahmad Jauhari said on Monday, when asked who it was believed had spoken those words.
That was a sign-off to air traffic controllers at 1:19am, as the Beijing-bound plane left Malaysian airspace, reports Reuters.
Meanwhile, The Independent has learnt that Malaysian authorities are seeking diplomatic permission to investigate a theory that the plane was flown to one of a number of Taliban strongholds on the border of Afghanistan and North West Pakistan.
Last night sources in Kuala Lumpur assisting with the investigation told The Independent that full diplomatic permissions were being sought in order to rule out the theory that the plane could have flown to areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan that are not under government control.
Large areas of the southern half of Afghanistan are ruled by the Afghan Taliban, while some areas of north-west Pakistan, adjacent to or near to the Afghan border, are controlled by the Pakistani Taliban.
A spokesman for Malaysian Airlines said: “These are matters for the jurisdiction of those regions and Malaysia's armed forces and department of civil aviation. In regard to Pakistan and Afghanistan, we cannot explore those theories without permission. We hope to have that soon.”