KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 (Xinhua) -- The search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had been expanded to 2.24 million square nautical miles (about 7.68 million square km), Malaysia's acting transport minister said Tuesday.
Hishammuddin Hussein, also Malaysia's defence minister, told a press conference the northern and southern search corridors, identified as the plane's likely flight path based on satellite data, were each divided into seven quadrants, with each quadrant covering an area of 160,000 square nautical miles (548,784 square km).
"Our focus is on four tasks: gathering information from satellite surveillance, analysis of surveillance radar data, increasing air and surface assets, and increasing the number of technical and subject matter experts," he said.
The Boeing 777-200ER went missing in the early hours of March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board, including 154 Chinese.
Based on latest information, the search areas - almost as large as Australia - encompass a northern corridor stretching approximately from the borders of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand, and a southern one from Indonesia deep into the southern Indian Ocean.
"This is an enormous search area. And it is something that Malaysia cannot possibly search on its own. I am therefore very pleased that so many countries have come forward to offer assistance and support to the search and rescue operation," the minister said.
As many as 26 countries have been involved in the search across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Hishammuddin confirmed the Royal Malaysian Navy on Tuesday deployed two more ships to the southern corridor, which has brought the total number of Malaysian ships to four, with two Super Lynx helicopters also involved.
China's Ministry of Transportation on Tuesday ordered all Chinese vessels in the Gulf of Thailand to transfer their search to the waters southeast of the Bay of Bengal and near the Sunda Strait.
China's largest rescue vessel, Haixun 01, headed toward Singapore Tuesday to join the search.
The vessel is expected to arrive in the waters near Singapore for supplies on Wednesday before dawn before continuing on to join the search in waters near the Sunda Strait.
The 128.6-meter-long vessel, with a displacement of 5,418 tons and a maximum sailing distance of 10,000 nautical miles without refueling, carries advanced equipment such as a helicopter, an underwater robot, black box search instruments, side-scan sonar and a magnetometer.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily press briefing Tuesday that China had deployed more than 10 vessels and 21 satellites to the search, informed 25 countries of latest developments and asked them for help.
Hong said China appreciated those countries' all-out efforts to help.
China has used satellites and radar to search for the missing jet in parts of its own territory covered by the northern corridor, he said.
Regarding the probe into the crew and passengers, the Malaysian minister refused to reveal more details of the ongoing investigation, adding "the search for MH370 is bigger than politics."
A Malaysian daily, Barita Harian, reported earlier Tuesday that police found training programs involving runways at five airports around the Indian Ocean in a flight stimulator recovered by Royal Malaysian Police from the home of the captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
The runways included Male International Airport in the Maldives, a military airport on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and three other runways in India and Sri Lanka, the newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying.
Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang said on the same day that background checks on all passengers from the Chinese mainland on board the missing flight had found no evidence of links to sabotage or terrorism.
Those passengers could now be cleared of suspicion in principle, he said.
The ambassador also said, as far as he knew, no group or individual had claimed responsibility for the plane's disappearance or made any political demands.
A multinational search has so far failed to determine the whereabouts of the flight as the search and rescue mission enters its 11th day, and what happened to the plane remains a mystery.