The discovery of unidentified debris in the Maldives at the weekend has revived interest in reports – quickly discounted at the time – of an aircraft flying low over Kudhuvadhoo in the 1,100-island Indian Ocean archipelago on 8 March 2014, the day Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared. The reports led to speculation that the Boeing 777 was heading for the US base at Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago, 400 n miles south of Addu Atoll in the Maldives.
The Malaysian government is sending a team of experts to try to identify the items found on the shores of Baa Atoll Fehendhoo and Fulhadhoo. Aviation experts and oceanographers are sceptical that debris could have washed up in both La Réunion and the Maldives, however.
Reported in the Maldives online newspaper Haveeru, Captain Abdulla Rashid said that the items appeared to be some of the 4,000 wall panels that he was transporting to Baa Atoll on 10 February 2014 when his vessel capsized. The paper quoted him as saying of the latest discoveries, “I can almost certainly say that they are from the cargo we were carrying.” The honeycomb construction of the wall panels led residents to believe they were parts of an aircraft, it was suggested.
Rashid’s barge overturned about 10 n miles from Baa Atoll, with the loss of three out of the five crew members. The vessel was found 30 n miles from Baa Atoll Goidhoo Island.
On Monday, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) intercepted a boat 54 n miles from Addu Atoll that it said was attempting to leave Maldivian territory illegally. The MNDF believed that the vessel Fahi Roalhi, which was carrying a group of German and Italian tourists as well as Maldivian passengers, was attempting to reach Diego Garcia, known in the Maldives as Foalhavahi. Quoted in Sun Online, Major Adnaan Mohamed of the MNDF said that the force had conducted the operation “since there were factors involved that could compromise the Maldives on the international stage”.
The Chagos archipelago, including the US Air Force and US Navy bases on Diego Garcia, forms part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and is the focus of a bitter territorial dispute between the UK and Mauritius. Unauthorised vessels are strictly forbidden from approaching the sensitive militarised zone and marine park. The base has been used for launching air strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan and provides logistics support for US military operations in the Indian Ocean and Middle East.
In August 2014, the Maldives Civil Aviation Authority reported that aircraft from Diego Garcia had made unauthorised low-level flights over Huvadhoo Atoll on two consecutive days, dropping buoys that were later recovered by the MNDF. The sightings on the morning of 8 March 2014 may therefore have been of a US military transport or surveillance aircraft returning to Diego Garcia, rather than of MH370.
BIOT’s deepwater harbour, which is capable of accommodating US Navy aircraft carriers, has been proposed as a cruise harbour if plans to develop the islands for tourism go ahead after the US lease expires next year. Currently, the base is supplied by sea from Singapore.
Searches are continuing in Réunion, meanwhile, with foot patrols scanning the east coast beaches for debris. Although President Françoi s Hollande of France announced the deployment of additional aerial and maritime assets, it is understood that naval vessels will only be sent out if aerial surveillance identifies floating wreckage.
To date, no confirmed material from the missing aircraft has been found apart from the flaperon, which is still being examined by accident investigators in Toulouse. Aerial surveillance on Friday spotted an unidentified capsized boat off Saint-Philippe, in the island’s southeast. Réunion’s Centre Opérationnel de Surveillance et de Sauvetage (CROSS) issued an urgent notice to mariners about the floating hazard, according to local news website Zinfos974.