The Malaysia Airlines flight missing since Saturday had veered hundreds of miles off its flight path by the time of its last radar tracking and appeared to be flying in the opposite direction from its intended destination of Beijing, Malaysian military sources were quoted as telling local media Tuesday.

"The surprise disclosure would in part explain the decision by Malaysia two days ago to expand the search area by 100 nautical miles to cover the Strait of Malacca," nearly 350 miles west of Flight 370's filed flight path, the South China Morning Post reported, citing unnamed military sources.

A local Malay-language newspaper, Berita Harian, also quoted Malaysian Air Force Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying the airliner with 239 passengers and crew on board was last detected on radar at 2:40 a.m. local time near Pulau Perak, the northern end of the busy Strait of Malacca that separates Malaysia's west coast from the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Another high-ranking military official confirmed the jet's flight path deviation and added that the plane was believed to be flying low at the time of its last detection, the Associated Press reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"It changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude. It made it into the Malacca Strait," the Reuters news agency quoted a military official involved in the investigation of the missing jet as saying.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur early Saturday and disappeared from air traffic control screens at 1:30 a.m., less than an hour after takeoff for Beijing.

It was unclear why the Boeing 777 might have departed from its flight path or dropped to a lower altitude, as air traffic control authorities reported no contact from the missing plane's cockpit crew in the last hour before it disappeared.

A fifth day of aerial and naval search was underway early Wednesday over a vast area of South Asian ocean and waterways.

International security officials had lately downplayed the likelihood that terrorism was involved in the plane's disappearance, but that analysis was developing prior to the disclosures that the plane was far off course.

Terrorism had been suspected when it was learned that two men on board were traveling on stolen passports. But investigators have since concluded that the two Iranian men had no known association with extremist groups and were thought to be traveling to Europe in hopes of gaining asylum.

carol.williams@latimes.com
Twitter: @cjwilliamslat