Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has claimed the “top levels” of the Malaysian government long suspected the vanishing of a plane almost six years ago was a mass murder-suicide by the pilot.
Mr Abbott was prime minister when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 carrying 239 people disappeared on March 8 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Australia, working on Malaysia’s behalf, co-ordinated what became the largest search in aviation history, but it failed to find the plane before being ended in 2017.
Speaking in a Sky News documentary to air on Wednesday and Thursday, Mr Abbott said high-ranking Malaysian officials believed veteran pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah deliberately downed the jet.
“My very clear understanding, from the very top levels of the Malaysian government, is that from very, very early on, they thought it was murder-suicide by the pilot,” said Mr Abbott, who was PM from 2013 to 2015.
“I’m not going to say who said what to whom, but let me reiterate, I want to be absolutely crystal clear, it was understood at the highest levels that this was almost certainly murder-suicide by the pilot.”
A Malaysian-led independent investigation report released in 2018 said the plane’s course was changed manually, but did not name a suspect and raised the possibility of “intervention by a third party”.
Investigators said the cause of the disappearance could not be determined until the wreckage and the plane’s black boxes were found.
Malaysia has had a change of government since the plane’s disappearance, after prime minister Mahathir Mohamad ousted the government led by Najib Razak, whose party had ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957.
The pilot’s family has long denied he was suicidal. The 2018 investigative report said there was no evidence of abnormal behaviour or stress in the two pilots and none of the passengers had pilot training.
Mr Abbott said he did not believe conspiracy theories centred on the Malaysian government, which owns Malaysia Airlines.
“I’ve read all these stories that the Malaysians allegedly didn’t want the murder-suicide theory pursued because they were embarrassed about one of their pilots doing this. I have no reason to accept that,” he said.
The Australian-led search scoured 46,000 square miles of the southern Indian Ocean and cost 200 million Australian dollars (£100 million). A private hunt by Texas-based company Ocean Infinity later searched more than 37,000 square miles of sea.
Debris that washed ashore in the western Indian Ocean has been confirmed as coming from the missing Boeing 777 and indicated a broad expanse of the ocean where the plane is likely to have crashed after running out of fuel.
Australia, Malaysia and China agreed in 2016 that an official search would only resume if the three countries had credible evidence that identified a specific location for the wreckage.
Mr Abbott believed a new investigation was warranted.
“Let’s assume that it was murder-suicide by the pilot, and if there is any part of that ocean that could have been reached on that basis that has not yet been explored, let’s get out and explore it,” he said.