KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The missing Malaysian jetliner may have attempted to turn back before it vanished from radar, but there is no evidence it reached the Strait of Malacca, the country's air force chief said Wednesday, denying reports that he said otherwise.
The statement suggested continued confusion over where the Boeing 777 might have ended up, more than four days after it disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur with 239 people on board.
The air force chief, Gen. Rodzali Daud, was quoted as saying in local media reports Tuesday that the military had radar data showing the plane had turned back from its original course, crossed the country and made it to the Strait of Malacca to the west of Malaysia. The Associated Press contacted a high-level military official, who confirmed the remarks.
In a statement, Daud denied the remarks, and referred to a statement he made March 9 in which he said the air force has "not ruled out the possibility of an air turn back" and said search and rescue efforts had been expanded in this regard.
Search teams from 10 nations had initially focused their efforts east of the peninsula along the path that the red-eye flight was on when it disappeared after departing from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. local time en route to Beijing, where it was supposed to land at 6:30 a.m.
The reports that the plane veered so far off course added a bizarre and confusing new element to a case that has baffled investigators.
Three days after the plane vanished, investigators admitted they still were mystified by what happened on board. Malaysian authorities said they continued to look for signs of sabotage or hijacking but were also considering the possibility of psychological or personal problems among the passengers or crew.
They played down any connection between the plane's fate and two Iranian passengers who had boarded the aircraft with fake Austrian and Italian passports.
"The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident," Ronald Noble, secretary general of the international police agency Interpol, told reporters.
But in Washington, CIA director John Brennan said terrorism could not yet be ruled out, while stressing that authorities have reached no conclusions about what caused the disappearance.
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement early Tuesday that the western coast of Malaysia was "now the focus" of the search. But a spokeswoman for the airline later said the wording was a mistake and that there was no emphasis on any location.
Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said searches were continuing "on both sides" of the peninsula.
The discovery of two passengers with fake documents had raised alarm that a terrorist attack might have brought down the plane. But authorities said Tuesday that the two Iranians carrying phony passports — Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29 — did not appear to be linked to any violent group. Both arrived in Malaysia the same day, Feb. 28, officials said.
At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Khalid Abu Bakar, inspector general of Malaysia's police, said that the 19-year-old was trying to migrate to Germany: His mother had been waiting for him in Frankfurt, then called Malaysian authorities when he did not arrive. Interpol identified the other Iranian at a separate news conference, though his reasons for traveling were not immediately clear.
While Malaysia might seem an odd stop for Middle Eastern men heading for Europe, it is relatively easy for Iranians to enter the country, and air tickets to reach the Southeast Asian country are fairly cheap.
Search teams, meanwhile, battled wind and whitecaps while looking for any sign of debris from the vanished jet, especially wreckage containing the plane's crucial cockpit recorders. The instruments usually emit tracking signals for about 30 days.
The United States is using both P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and helicopters that fly just 500 feet above the water and depend on crews to spot potential debris.
With the surveillance aircraft, "the software that goes with the radar is smart enough to cancel out those waves," Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, said in a phone interview from the Gulf of Thailand. "However, if you're just using your eyeballs, it is a significant challenge, because the water is not flat any more."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.