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Malaysia doubles scale of search for missing plane

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia said Sunday the number of countries searching for a missing airliner had nearly doubled to 25 as a full-scale criminal probe into its disappearance got under way, with particular scrutiny of the pilots.

Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the number of participating countries had jumped from 14 to 25 as the search for the aircraft focused on two vast, and vastly contrasting, land and ocean transport corridors.

The dramatic “re-calibration” would inevitably bring “new challenges of coordination and diplomacy,” the minister said.

Police said they had searched the homes of both pilots and examined the captain's home flight simulator after it became increasingly clear that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished March 8 had been deliberately diverted by someone on board.

Hishammuddin cautioned people against “jumping to conclusions” about the thrust of the investigation, which national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar stressed was covering “all” the 239 passengers and crew.

Engineers who may have had contact with the aircraft before take-off were also being looked at, Khalid said.

The police action followed Saturday's startling revelations that the plane's communications systems had been manually switched off before the jet veered westward and flew on for hours.

Like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak the previous day, Hishammuddin refused to use the word hijack, saying only that the pattern of events was consistent with “deliberate action” by someone on the plane.

The new search parameters involve two possible flight corridors — a northern one stretching from Thailand to Kazakhstan and a southern one from Indonesia towards the southern Indian Ocean.

The Malaysian foreign ministry briefed representatives from 22 countries on Sunday, including the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, and requested support in the form of satellite and radar data.

For anguished relatives, the news the plane had been diverted was a double-edged sword — holding out the slim hope that hijackers had landed the plane somewhere, while ushering in another agonizing open-ended waiting period.

Relatives of Bob and Cathy Lawton, a missing Australian couple, said they were horrified by the notion of a drawn-out hijack ordeal.

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A police car comes out of a main gate of the missing Malaysia Airlines pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah's house in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Saturday, March 15. (AP)

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