Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet turned back before vanishing, Malaysia's air force chief said Sunday as authorities were investigating up to four passengers with suspicious identifications who may have boarded the flight.
The revelations add to the uncertainties surrounding the final minutes of flight MH370, which was carrying 239 people — including two Canadians — when it lost contact with ground controllers somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam after leaving Kuala Lumpur early Saturday morning for Beijing.
A massive international sea search has so far turned up no trace of the plane, which lost contact with the ground when the weather was fine, the plane was already cruising and the pilots didn't send a distress signal — unusual circumstance for a modern jetliner operated by a professional airline to crash.
Vietnamese air force jets spotted two large oil slicks Saturday, but it was unclear if they were linked to the missing plane, and no debris was found nearby.
Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn't say which direction the plane might have taken or how long for when it apparently went off route.
"We are trying to make sense of this," he told a media conference. "The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back and in some parts, this was corroborated by civilian radar."
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said pilots were supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if the plane does a U-turn. "From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per se, so we are equally puzzled," he said.
Two-thirds of the jet's passengers were Chinese. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
The flight manifest identifies the two Canadians as Xiaomo Bai, 37, and Muktesh Mukherjee, 42.<
Mukherjee and Bai were married and lived with their two children in Beijing, where Mukherjee was working for Pennsylvania-based Xcoal Energy & Resources, CEO Ernie Thrasher said in an email to The Canadian Press.
After more than 30 hours without contact with the aircraft, Malaysia Airlines told family members they should "prepare themselves for the worst," Hugh Dunleavy, the commercial director for the airline told reporters.
Authorities were checking on the suspect identities of at least two passengers who appear to have boarded with stolen passports. On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight's manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
This, and the sudden disappearance of the plane that experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, strengthened existing concerns about terrorism as a possible cause for the disappearance. Al-Qaida militants have used similar tactics to try and disguise their identities.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that authorities were looking at two more possible cases of suspicious identities. He said Malaysian intelligence agencies were in contact with their international counterparts, including the FBI. He gave no more details.
"All the four names are with me and have been given to our intelligence agencies," he said. "We are looking at all possibilities."
A total of 22 aircraft and 40 ships have been deployed to the area by Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States, not counting Vietnam's fleet.
Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over many square kilometres (miles). If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.