As the sun set over Port Blair in the Andaman Sea during the past week, runway lights glowed to guide Indian aircraft searching for the missing Malaysian passenger jet back to land.
For the past two days, however, the headquarters of India’s search operations for the plane in the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been quiet as officials await new coordinates from Malaysia. Many of the 2,000 military officers stationed on the islands stayed home to celebrate the holiday of Holi, which marks the start of spring, by smearing colored powder on each other’s faces.
“Our hands are tied until the Malaysians come back to us with coordinates,” Harmit Singh, spokesman for the Indian military in Port Blair, said today. “Until then, we just sit, wait and try to enjoy Holi.”
Indian officials had deployed ships and long-range aircraft from the island chain to search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 across 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles), an area about the size of the U.K. Shifting the search further into the Indian Ocean may prove much more difficult.
“The Indian Ocean is daunting,” V.S.R. Murthy, the coast guard’s commander for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said in an interview on March 15. “There is a massive amount of sea that will need to be searched, which will require many more planes, ships.”
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were used by British rulers to hold and hang criminals in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and later to imprison Indian freedom fighters. The islands officially became an Indian union territory in 1947 when the country won independence from the British.
India maintains a military presence in the island chain, seeking to counter Chinese maritime power as well as prevent attacks by pirates in key shipping routes. The archipelago of about 527 islands not far from Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia also attracts tourists seeking pristine beaches.
India is among 25 countries that Malaysia is asking to help find the 777-200 wide-body Boeing Co. aircraft carrying 239 people that disappeared on March 8. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said it’s possible the plane might’ve traveled in a corridor reaching into the southern Indian Ocean as it continued flying for almost seven hours after its last contact with air-traffic controllers.
The Indian search fleet includes P8I long-range maritime patrol, C-130J Hercules and Dornier planes, according to the nation’s government. Naval warships INS Saryu and INS Kesari were also assigned to the task, it said in a March 15 statement.
India has no naval assets permanently stationed near or below the equator, the area where the new search may take place, according to Pradeep Kaushiva, a former Indian vice admiral who spent 40 years in the navy and specializes in electronic warfare.
“We are entering a new more daunting, more difficult search for something that we don’t even know is there,” he said. “It’s very much a search for a needle in the haystack.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kartikay Mehrotra in New Delhi at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at email@example.com Sunil Jagtiani, Neil Western