* Total search area totals 7.68 million sq km
* Background checks find no clear motive for disappearance
* Thailand says it detected plane re-crossing peninsula
* Insurer begins paying claims
* Police study runways in pilot's flight simulator
By Anshuman Daga and Niluksi Koswanage
KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 An international land and
sea search for a missing Malaysian jetliner is covering an area
the size of Australia, authorities said on Tuesday, but police
and intelligence agencies have yet to establish a clear motive
to explain its disappearance.
Investigators are convinced that someone with deep knowledge
of the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial navigation
diverted Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, carrying 12
crew and 227 mainly Chinese passengers, perhaps thousands of
miles off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But intensive background checks of everyone aboard have so
far failed to find anyone with a known political or criminal
motive to hijack or deliberately crash the plane, Western
security sources and Chinese authorities said.
With the plane missing for 10 days, German insurer Allianz
said on Tuesday it had started making payments on
claims linked to the jetliner.
Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein
told a news conference the "unique, unprecedented" search
covered a total area of 2.24 million nautical miles (7.68
million sq km), from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean.
Flight MH370 vanished from civilian air traffic control
screens off Malaysia's east coast less than an hour after
take-off early on March 8.
Investigators piecing together patchy data from military
radar and satellites believe that someone turned off the
aircraft's identifying transponder and ACARS system, which
transmits maintenance data, and turned west, re-crossing the
Malay Peninsula and following a commercial aviation route
Malaysian officials have backtracked on the exact sequence
of events. They are now unsure whether the ACARS system was shut
down before or after the last radio message was heard from the
cockpit - but said that did not make a material difference.
"This does not change our belief, as stated, that up until
the point at which it left military primary radar coverage, the
aircraft's movements were consistent with deliberate action by
someone on the plane," said Hishammuddin. "That remains the
position of the investigating team."
BACKGROUND CHECKS CLEAN
China's ambassador to Malaysia said his country had
investigated its nationals aboard the flight and could rule out
U.S. and European security sources said efforts by various
governments to investigate the backgrounds of everyone on the
flight had not, as of Monday, turned up links to militant groups
or anything else that could explain the jet's disappearance.
Malaysian police investigations have also failed to turn up
any red flags on 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the captain, or
co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27.
Accounts of their lives portray them as sociable,
well-balanced and happy. Neither fits the profile of a loner or
extremist with a motive for suicide or hijacking.
"I've never seen him lose his temper. It's difficult to
believe any of the speculation made against him," said Peter
Chong, a friend of Zaharie, describing him as highly disciplined
The New York Times cited senior U.S. officials as saying
that the first turn back to the west was likely programmed into
the aircraft's flight computer, rather than being executed
manually, by someone knowledgeable about aircraft systems.
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told
Tuesday's daily news conference that that was "speculation."
Malaysian officials said on Monday that suicide by the pilot
or co-pilot was a line of inquiry, although they stressed that
it was only one of the possibilities under investigation. Police
have searched their homes in middle-class suburbs of Kuala
Lumpur close to the airport.
Among the items taken for examination was a flight simulator
Zaharie had built in his home.
A senior police officer with direct knowledge of the
investigation said the programs from the pilot's simulator
included Indian Ocean runways in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Diego
Garcia and southern India, although he added that U.S. and
European runways also featured.
"Generally these flight simulators show hundreds or even
thousands of runways," the officer said. "What we are trying to
see is what were the runways that were frequently used."
"NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK"
Thailand said on Tuesday a re-examination of its military
radar data had picked up the plane re-tracing its route across
Peninsular Malaysia. The Thai military had previously said it
had not detected any sign of the plane.
What happened next is less certain. The plane may have flown
for another six hours or more after dropping off Malaysian
military radar about 200 miles northwest of Penang Island.
But the satellite signals that provide the only clues were
not intended to work as locators. The best they can do is place
the plane in one of two broad arcs - one stretching from Laos up
to the Caspian, the other from west of Indonesia down to the
Indian Ocean off Australia - when the last signal was picked up.
China, which, with Kazakhstan, is leading the search in the
northern corridor, said on Tuesday it had deployed 21 satellites
to scour its territory.
Australia, which is leading the southernmost leg of the
search, said it had shrunk its search field based on satellite
tracking data and analysis of weather and currents, but that it
still covered 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq miles).
"A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy," John Young,
general manager of the emergency response division of the
Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), told reporters.
Allianz, which confirmed last week that it was the lead
insurer covering the airliner, said it and other co-reinsurers
of the aircraft's aviation hull and liability policy had made
"This is in agreement with the insurance broker, Willis, and
is in line with normal market practice and our contractual
obligations where an aircraft is reported as missing," Allianz
said in a statement.
German business daily Handelsblatt has reported payments in
the case would be around 100 million euros ($139.13 million) for
the aircraft and the people aboard.