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MH370: French officials question Malaysia claims on missing flight

Malaysia's assertion that more debris potentially linked to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had washed up on an Indian Ocean island prompted puzzlement from French officials, adding to criticisms that the international response to one of the most famous aviation mysteries of all time is suffering from an exasperating lack of cohesion.

Malaysian claims add to criticisms that international response suffers from lack of cohesion

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said early Thursday that the debris found on Réunion Island is from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, while French officials investigating the debris have stopped short of confirming the same. (Olivia Harris/Reuters)

Malaysia's assertion that more debris potentially linked to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had washed up on an Indian Ocean island prompted puzzlement from French officials, adding to criticisms that the international response to one of the most famous aviation mysteries of all time is suffering from an exasperating lack of cohesion.

Ever since the Boeing 777 vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, Malaysian officials have been accused of jumping the gun, giving inaccurate statements and withholding information from families and other countries involved in the investigation.

On Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's statement that a wing fragment found on a French island had been definitively linked to Flight 370 prompted cautious responses from French, U.S. and Australian officials involved in the probe, who would say only that it was likely or probable the part came from the missing plane.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai added to the confusion later Thursday, saying a Malaysian team had found more debris on Réunion Island, including a window and some aluminum foil, and had sent the material to local authorities for French investigators to examine.

"I can only ascertain that it's plane debris," Liow said. "I cannot confirm that it's from MH370."

Paris denies new debris found

French officials involved with the investigation in both Paris and Réunion were baffled by Liow's announcement; none were aware of any discovery or material in French custody. The Paris prosecutor's office, which is spearheading a French legal inquiry into the crash, later denied there was any new debris, before French officials — notoriously cautious when it comes to air accident investigations — again retreated into silence.

A spokesman for Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss said in a statement Friday that while a great deal of additional material has been handed to police in Réunion, none appears to have come from the plane.

Meanwhile, Liow sparked further questions when he said that a maintenance seal and the color tone of the paint on the wing part, known as a flaperon, matches the airline's records. On Friday, an Australian government official said that the paint is not a unique identifier for Flight 370; rather, it comes from a batch that Boeing used on all its planes when the missing plane was manufactured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

Liow said Thursday that differences with other countries amounted to "a choice of words." But the dissonant comments prompted frustration from families of those on board the plane, who have waited more than 500 days for solid clues into the fate of their loved ones. Some questioned why the various countries involved couldn't get on the same page before speaking publicly.

French officials stay quiet

Wang Zhuncai (centre), whose daughter was aboard the missing flight, cries as she and other family members kneel down in front of media ahead of a briefing given by Malaysia Airlines, in Beijing on Friday. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
French government officials have not addressed the conflicting information coming from Malaysia either publicly or privately. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian defended the government's relative silence saying instead. "We have above all mobilized our means" since the plane disappeared. Since the wing fragment washed up on Réunion, he added, the government has added its investigators directly to the case.

"I hope that all of this can be verified, but we have to take it to its end," Le Drian told RTL radio.

Some criticism came from within Malaysia itself. Opposition lawmaker Liew Chin Tong said in a statement that Liow must explain "the haste and hurry" to declare the wreckage came from Flight 370.

"A quick conclusion will not do justice to the next of kin of the victims," he said.

Until the wing flap washed ashore last week, investigators had not found a single physical clue linked to the disappearance of Flight 370, despite a massive air and sea search. Officials believe it crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people aboard, but the wreckage and the reason why remain elusive.

Australia also criticized

Ghislain Wattrelos, who lost his wife and two of his children when Flight 370 disappeared, said he was baffled by the comments by Malaysian authorities.

"We are delighted that the debris ended up in France," Wattrelos told BFM television in France on Thursday. "I have a lot more confidence in my country than in Malaysia and Australia, who have lied to us since the beginning."

Australia's credibility as search leader suffered a battering thanks to a series of false leads that were oversold by its government, which was eager to boast success after the hunt shifted to its search and rescue zone in the southern Indian Ocean after the plane disappeared.

France said it is deploying a search plane, helicopters and boats around Reunion in hopes of spotting more debris that might be from the missing jet.

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