By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Analysis of electronic pulses picked up from a missing Malaysian airliner shows it could have run out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean after it flew hundreds of miles off course, a source familiar with official U.S. assessments said on Friday.
The source, who is familiar with data the U.S. government is receiving from the investigation into the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane, said the other, less likely possibility was that it flew on toward India.
The data obtained from pulses the plane sent to satellites had been interpreted to provide two different analyses because it was ambiguous, said the source, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigation.
But it offers the first real clues as to the fate of Flight MH370, which officials increasingly believe was deliberately diverted off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The Boeing 777-200ER was carrying 239 people.
Two sources familiar with the probe earlier said Malaysian military radar data showed a plane that investigators suspect was Flight MH370 following a commonly used navigational route toward the Middle East and Europe when it was last spotted by radar early on March 8, northwest of Malaysia.
The electronic pulses were believed to have been transmitted for several hours after the plane flew out of radar range, said the source familiar with the data.
The most likely possibility is that after travelling northwest, the airliner did a sharp turn to the south, into the Indian Ocean where officials think, based on the available data, it flew until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea, added the source.
The other interpretation from the pulses is that Flight MH370 continued to fly to the northwest and headed over Indian territory, said the source.
Because of the fragmentary nature of the data, U.S. officials don't know for sure which analysis is correct, although they believe the turn to the south is more likely, the source said.
The source added that it was believed unlikely the plane flew for any length of time over India because that country has strong air defense and radar coverage and that should have allowed authorities there to see the plane and intercept it.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Friday he could not confirm the last heading of the plane or if investigators were focusing on sabotage.
There has been no trace of the plane nor any sign of wreckage as the navies and military aircraft of more than a dozen countries scour the seas on both sides of peninsular Malaysia.
(Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Mark Bendeich)