Missing jet’s communications system disabled before pilot uttered final words

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Even before someone at the controls calmly said the last words heard from the missing Malaysian jetliner, one of the Boeing 777’s communications systems had already been disabled, authorities said Sunday, adding to suspicions that one or both of the pilots were involved in disappearance of the flight.

Investigators also examined a flight simulator confiscated from the home of one of the pilots and dug through the background of all 239 people on board, as well as the ground crew that serviced the plane.

The Malaysia Airlines jet took off from Kuala Lumpur in the wee hours of March 8, headed to Beijing. On Saturday, the Malaysian government announced findings that strongly suggested the plane was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia or south into the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.

Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems -- the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS -- about 40 minutes after takeoff. The ACARS equipment sends information about the jet’s engines and other data to the airline.

Around 14 minutes later, the transponder that identifies the plane to commercial radar systems was also shut down. The fact that both systems went dark separately offered strong evidence that the plane’s disappearance was deliberate.

Plane’s disappearance unveils flaws in aviation system, but change not guaranteed

NEW YORK (AP) -- The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has exposed wide gaps in how the world’s airlines -- and their regulators -- operate. But experts warn this isn’t likely to be one of those defining moments that lead to fundamental changes.

For financial and technological reasons, and because of issues tied to national sovereignty, the status quo is expected to prevail in the way passports are checked, aircraft are tracked at sea and searches are coordinated.

In an age of constant connectedness, it’s almost inconceivable to lose a 209-foot-long airplane for more than a week, or be in the dark about what happened onboard around the time it went missing.

The reality is that large portions of the globe don’t have radar coverage. Over oceans, pilots fill in those gaps by radioing air traffic controllers at routine intervals with position updates. And while planes record sounds in the cockpit as well as speed, altitude, fuel flow and the positions of flaps, that information isn’t shared with anyone on the ground. Crash investigators only get access to the data on the recorders after combing through the wreckage.

Numerous experts have said it is time to update tracking abilities and use satellite links to provide real-time feeds on the operation of planes and conversations within the cockpit.

Defense: Army general’s new plea deal includes dropping of sexual assault charges

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Defense attorneys said Sunday that an Army general has agreed to a plea deal that includes the dropping of sexual assault charges against him.

Lawyers representing Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair said he will plead to lesser charges in exchange for having the sexual assault charges dropped, along with two other counts that might have required Sinclair to register as a sex offender.

Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex on him during a three-year extramarital affair. But the Army’s case against Sinclair crumbled in recent weeks as questions arose about whether the woman had lied in a pre-trial hearing.

The defense provided a copy of the plea agreement approved and signed by a high-ranking general overseeing the case. Sinclair is expected to appear Monday morning in court at Fort Bragg.

The married 27-year Army veteran pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the female captain who accused him of assault. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.

U.S. rejects Crimea vote, warns Russia against moves toward east south Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. rejected the Crimea secession referendum Sunday as illegal and readied retaliatory penalties against Russia, while shifting sights to deterring possible military advances elsewhere in Ukraine that could inflame the crisis.

Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to split off from Ukraine and join Russia. But even before official results were announced, the White House denounced the vote, saying it violated Ukraine’s constitution and international law and was held under "threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention."

It said "no decisions should be made about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government" and noted that Russia had rejected the deployment of international monitors in Crimea to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians there were protected.

"Russia has spurned those calls as well as outreach from the Ukrainian government and instead has escalated its military intervention into Crimea and initiated threatening military exercises on Ukraine’s eastern border," the White House said.

"Russia’s actions are dangerous and destabilizing," the White House said.

Crackdown in Egypt on ousted president’s backers sees 16K detained, reports of abuses

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country’s biggest round-up in nearly two decades, according to previously unreleased figures from security officials. Rights activists say reports of abuses in prisons are mounting, with prisoners describing systematic beatings and miserable conditions for dozens packed into tiny cells.

The Egyptian government has not released official numbers for those arrested in the sweeps since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. But four senior officials -- two from the Interior Ministry and two from the military -- gave The Associated Press a count of 16,000, including about 3,000 top- or mid-level members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The count, which is consistent with recent estimates by human rights groups, was based on a tally kept by the Interior Ministry to which the military also has access. It includes hundreds of women and minors, though the officials could not give exact figures. The officials gave the figures to the AP on condition of anonymity because the government has not released them.

The flood of arrests has swamped prisons and the legal system. Many are held for months in police station lockups meant as temporary holding areas or in impromptu jails set up in police training camps because prisons are overcrowded. Inmates are kept for months without charge.

"My son looks like a caveman now. His hair and nails are long, he has a beard and he is unclean," said Nagham Omar, describing to the AP the conditions that her 20-year-old son Salahideen Ayman Mohammed has endured since his arrest in January while participating in a pro-Morsi protest. He and 22 others are crammed in a 3-by-3 meter (yard) cell in a police station in the southern city of Assiut, said Omar, who visits him once a week. Mohammed has not yet been charged.