Obama visits Malaysia as questions loom over missing jetliner
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s government has been widely criticized over its handling of the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and disclosures of its investigations. But on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama had words of praise during a visit to the southeast Asian country.
He said the Malaysian government has been “forthcoming” with the United States about the information it has.
“The Malaysian government is working tirelessly to recover the aircraft and investigate exactly what happened,” Obama told reporters. He reiterated that the United States would continue to aid in the search and offered condolences to loved ones of those lost.
Obama is the first American leader in decades to visit Malaysia, the Asian nation grappling with the mystery of the vanished jetliner.
He has remained largely quiet over the issue, as an international underwater search focuses on the southern Indian Ocean.
At an elaborate dinner at Istana Negara palace on Saturday, attended by some 600 guests, King Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah offered a toast in English and personally thanked Obama for U.S. support in the aftermath of the plane’s disappearance.
The missing plane is not the only topic on the President’s agenda. Malaysia is a growing partner of the United States, which seeks to deepen that relationship, White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
Topics of discussion between the two leaders will include trade, security and regional issues, he said.
Narrowed search nears end
Because of inclement weather, the planned air and sea search for Sunday was suspended, the Joint Agency Coordination Center said. The search by the Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle went ahead as planned, search coordinators said. It has found nothing of consequence so far.
Obama’s visit comes as the initial search by the Bluefin-21 nears its end.
The submersible, which is on contract to the U.S. Navy, is scouring the ocean floor for traces of the plane.
Previously, another device, a towed pinger locator, detected signals that officials believed were from the jet’s flight recorders, which determined the current search area for the Bluefin.
The underwater sonar device has slowly scoured 95% of the ocean floor area that searchers had narrowed down for it. So far, it has found no trace of the missing jetliner.
If the Bluefin-21 searches 100% of the area with nothing to show for it, the underwater search may expand, Australian officials said.
On Saturday, the British ship HMS Echo returned to port in Perth, Australia, for replenishment after assisting in the search.
A U.S. Navy source told CNN on Friday that the current search area is expected to move slightly north if the Bluefin doesn’t find any wreckage. Specifically, it might shift to encompass a 6-mile radius around where another “ping” was detected.
The underwater search so far has focused on a circle with a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius around the location of a detected “ping,” the Joint Agency Coordination Center said.
“We are currently consulting very closely with our international partners on the best way to continue the search into the future,” the Australian-based center coordinating the search said in a statement.
The plane disappeared on March 8 after leaving Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Beijing.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said a preliminary report on the plane’s disappearance will be available to the public next week.
He also asked an internal investigation team to look into what other information may be released publicly next week, his office said.
The report has been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. body for global aviation, but not yet made available to the public.
The U.N. organization said among the safety recommendations in the report is a suggestion by Malaysia that the aviation world needs to look at real-time tracking of commercial aircraft.
It’s the same recommendation that was made after Air France Flight 447 went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.
“Anytime there is a tragedy like this, we ought to also reflect on what can be done going forward to prevent something similar from happening again,” Obama said.
“That discussion has begun in Malaysia and around the world, and we’ll see what improvements might be recommended to continue improving aviation security. One thing is already clear, however, is that large international efforts like this search operation benefit from existing partnerships among nations.”
Obama, who will be in Malaysia until Sunday, is the first U.S. president to visit Kuala Lumpur in almost 50 years.
He leaves for the Philippines on Sunday, where he will remain until his departure for the United States on Tuesday.