Jakarta. International search efforts for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 hit a setback after Indonesia failed to give clearance for six foreign aircraft to fly over national airspace into the Indian Ocean on Tuesday in spite of assurances that Indonesia’s armed forces had extended its ”fullest support” to the continuing search.
The Indonesian Military (TNI) issued approval for search planes to fly through national airspace earlier this week, but delays in subsequent sign-offs by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs forced three countries’ search flights to remain grounded in Malaysia, testing relations between two countries well used to locking diplomatic horns.
“For the flight permits to be given out, there needed to be approvals from three different government institutions — the defense ministry, the transportation ministry, and the foreign affairs ministry,” TNI spokesman Rear Adm. Iskandar Sitompul told the Jakarta Globe. “Government institutions other than the TNI had to work on this, too, so the permit was stuck.”
Some 26 countries have banded together since March 8 to search for the missing Boeing 777-200ER over a search area spanning some 22 million square nautical miles, and Indonesia has assumed an important role as the gateway country out of Malaysia to one of two search areas. The southern corridor begins west of Banda Aceh and takes in a vast arc past Western Australia into some of the most remote expanse of the Indian Ocean with an average water depth of around 4,000 meters.
“It probably is the largest peacetime armada of assets and satellite information-sharing that we have ever seen for a rescue and search operation,” Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said, as quoted by Reuters.
The Indonesian government has so far lent 11 assets to the ongoing search, according to the Malaysian Ambassador to Indonesia.
“We have one aircraft — a Boeing 727-200 from the TNI Air Force,” Ambassador Datuk Seri Zahrain Mohamed Hashim told the Jakarta Globe. “We have one Cassa C-212 aircraft, which belongs to the Navy, and five ships also from the Navy.
“We also have one helicopter and three rescue boats from the National Search and Rescue Agency. That’s what we have on record.”
The BBC reported on Tuesday that the southern search had been hampered after the central government banned six planes from flying over Indonesian territory.
Four aircraft from the Japanese Self Defense Force, including Hercules and P-3 Orion planes, as well as a South Korean P-3 Orion and a US P-3 Orion were grounded in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
“We were supposed to take off 7 or 8 hours ago originally to head out over the Indian Ocean south of Java and to search a grid pattern for signs of the missing Malaysian airline,” Rupert Wingfield Hayes, a senior BBC reporter in Kuala Lumpur, said on Tuesday. “All of these aircraft are sitting on the ground.
“There is no search, no aerial search anyway, going on from Malaysia [on Tuesday]. The reason for that is that we have been waiting all day for the Indonesian government to give the foreign military aircraft permission to overfly it’s territory and it simply has not come.”
The Malaysian Embassy’s First Secretary Khairul Tazril Tarmizi would not be drawn on the delay in granting clearance, saying on Wednesday only that the Malaysian government’s position regarding Indonesia’s cooperation remained unchanged.
“Indonesia has been fully cooperative,” Tazril told the Jakarta Globe. “The ambassador’s view is still the same as [on Tuesday].”
The State Palace said it was unaware of the issue when contacted on Wednesday, adding that it would be discussed at a meeting later in the day. But according to Rear Adm. Iskandar, the TNI had tried to expedite the permits. The delay in allowing the six aircraft to take off was a consequence of the labyrinthine bureaucracy of other government bodies, he said.
“We want to get things straight — they [the grounded planes] have received their permits from the TNI,” Iskandar said. “It is incorrect to say that the TNI did not give them the permits. This is a humanitarian problem and it is only right that we help as fast as we could. The TNI’s principle is that we will give our fullest support. You can see that we sent five warships to the Malacca Strait to help.”
Indonesian Naval commander Adm. Marsetio spoke with his counterpart in the Malaysian Navy, Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz, and dispatched the five ships to the Strait of Malacca on Mar. 9.
“[The Mar. 18 flights] were just delayed, we did not reject the permits,” Iskandar said. “There is a mechanism; it was just a bureaucratic problem. We never intend to slow down the process. Please get this right, the TNI never intended to make the process difficult.”
The Indonesian armed forces said there should be no additional overfly clearance issues as the search continued.
“I have checked this with the intelligence, all the grounded flights have been granted access,” Iskandar said. “By now, they can operate.”
While Indonesia’s nebulous bureaucracy grounded search flights from taking off from Malaysia to search into the southern corridor on Tuesday, the Malaysian government said there had been no holdup in Indonesia’s willingness to supply background information held by the country’s intelligence agency on the seven Indonesian passengers on flight MH370.
The passenger manifest lists the Indonesian travelers as Firman Siregar, 25; Ferryindra Suadaya, 42; Herryindra Suadaya, 35; Lo Sugianto, 42; Indrasuria Tanurisam, 57; Vinny Chynthyatio, 47 and Willy Surijanto Wang, 53.
Only Russia and Ukraine had failed to hand over the results of background checks conducted by national intelligence agencies on Wednesday, according to a tweet by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The countries that did submit reports of their nationals abroad MH370 found nothing suspicious in their investigations.
Sidney Jones, a leading expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia and director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told Reuters on March 16 that she would be ”extremely surprised if any group from Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia itself would be directly involved.” A subsequent statement from the Indonesian National Police ruled out any involvement in terrorism by any of the seven Indonesian passengers.
“None of the seven passengers have been involved in a banned organization.” National Police chief Gen. Sutarman said at the State Palace on Wednesday. ”We will give full support… so that Malaysia can have access to the information.”
Malaysian officials in Indonesia said they were working with the Indonesian intelligence agency to conduct further background checks on the seven Indonesian passengers.
“The screening of the passengers’ background is being done by the police, Interpol and the CIA,” Zahrain said. They are all involved — it’s an international issue. Indonesia has been cooperative in this.”
The Malaysian Prime Minister and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke on the phone earlier this week to discuss cooperation efforts, while defense minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said that a meeting of the cabinet chaired by the president was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. on Wednesday to further discuss the search for MH370.
The outcome of this meeting could not be confirmed by deadline.
Purnomo told reporters on Wednesday that Indonesia had not detected MH370 on either its civilian or military radar systems.
“[On the morning of Mar. 8] we did not get detection from any of our radars,” Purnomo said. “There was no detection of any strange plane; there was none.”
Despite the delay in allowing six aircraft to leave their stands in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, the Malaysian government said that it remained satisfied by cooperation with Jakarta.
“The search will continue until we find the plane,” the Malaysian ambassador said. “How long that takes, I don’t know — we don’t know where the aircraft is. The best thing now is to pray.”
—Additional reporting by Reuters