The international search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is set to widen into the Indian Ocean, as authorities debunked a string of reports and apparent leads but admitted they had not discounted any possibilities almost seven days after the airliner vanished.
With US warships already deployed at Malaysian instruction in the Strait of Malacca, west of the Malay peninsula, the White House said the search could move into the Indian Ocean after new “possible pieces of information”.
According to a report on US network ABC, a Pentagon official said there was an “indication” that the plane may have crashed into the Indian Ocean.
A White House spokesman said the information was not conclusive. “We are consulting with international partners about the appropriate assets to deploy.”
The area being intensively searched extended further west on Thursday to cover an area of 38,500 square miles, underscoring the possibility that the Boeing 777 flew for hours after disappearing off the radar on Saturday morning.
However, the Malaysian authorities said reports that more data had been transmitted automatically by the plane after it went missing were inaccurate, adding that the final information received from its engines indicated everything was operating normally.
A report in the Wall Street Journal had claimed that US investigators believed the plane had flown for five hours, based on data allegedly transmitted to Rolls-Royce, the British engine manufacturers.
But Malaysia Airlines chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahyain, told reporters: “We have contacted both the possible sources of data – Rolls-Royce and Boeing – and both have said they did not receive data beyond 1.07am. The last transmission at 1.07am stated that everything was operating normally.”
Malaysia Airlines has confirmed its planes use the ACARS system, which automatically monitors the engines and transmits updates on their performance, altitude and speed. A Reuters report said sources close to the investigation claimed communications satellites picked up faint electronic pulses from the plane after it went missing, but the signals gave no indication where the jet was heading nor its technical condition. They said one engine maintenance update was received during the flight.
Neither Boeing nor Rolls-Royce would comment, citing international conventions on air accident investigations.
Boeing did state that an airworthiness directive about possible fuselage cracks issued by US authorities in November regarding 777s, which had been linked in some theories to flight MH370, did not apply as the missing plane did not have the specific antenna installed.
The aircraft, with 239 people on board, disappeared from civilian radar at 1.30am as it crossed the Gulf of Thailand from Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have also stated that the plane was again caught on radar at 2.30am (later denied), and on military radar at 2.15am near the Malacca strait, indicating that it had turned back from its flight path to Beijing.
Officials are still verifying whether the radar blip at 2.30am was actually MH370, Malaysia’s defence and acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, reiterated on Thursday, and he refused to answer whether that blip had also dropped off the military radar.
“This is too sensitive information,” Hussein told reporters. He added that Malaysia was in a “crisis situation” and was doing all it could to find the missing airliner. “There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane vanished,” he said.
Malaysian and Vietnamese search teams spent Thursday scouring waters off Vietnam’s southern tip looking for debris photographed by Chinese satellites. Nothing was found and the Malaysian transport minister said China had released the pictures online by accident. Chinese officials had also told him they would investigate how the images emerged.
The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, speaking at his annual press conference, reiterated that families and friends of more than 150 Chinese passengers on board the missing jet were “burning with anxiety”.
He added that the Chinese government had asked Malaysian authorities to co-ordinate their activities and establish the cause of the disappearance. “As long as there is a glimmer of hope, we will not stop searching,” he said.
With trust running low, the state broadcaster CCTV reported on Twitter that families had asked the Malaysian envoy whether the air force had shot down the plane – a suggestion Malaysia denied. While anger has so far focused primarily on the Malaysian response, relatives have also lashed out at Chinese officials for not doing enough to help.
“I really want to see President Xi [Jinping] – I don’t know right now what could possibly be more important than the lives of these 200 people,” one young woman, who gave her family name as Wen, told Reuters as she fought back tears.
“I also want to ask Mrs Xi, if your husband, President Xi, was on the plane, just imagine, if it was you, how would your parents feel?
“My husband was on the plane. Every day my children are asking me about their dad. What am I supposed to do?”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk.