Last Call: Report About Co-Pilot Latest Bad Twist in Jet Mystery

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A Malaysian official denied a report Saturday that the co-pilot of the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight made a “desperate” cellphone call before its demise, further complicating the confusion-shrouded investigation.

Malaysia’s New Straits Times, citing unidentified investigators, said they discovered co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid had placed a call when the plane was flying about 200 nautical miles northwest of Penang. Its low altitude allowed for a telecommunications tower to pick up the signal, according to the report.

NBC News has not been able to independently confirm the report, and a Malaysian official said Saturday he “doesn’t think this is true.”

The latest knocked-down report comes as an earlier New Straits Times report last month claimed the plane was flying at a low altitude to avoid being detected by radar. But Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of a new Joint Agency Coordination Center, later said, “We don't know what altitude the aircraft was travelling at.”

The New Straits Times said that the co-pilot’s call had not been disclosed by officials earlier because the probe is ongoing and revealed information could compromise the investigation.

Malaysian officials are focusing their attention on the crew and pilots after police cleared all 227 passengers of any involvement in the plane’s tragic disappearance on March 8, when it left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.

Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27-year-old co-pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.NBC News

Many experts also maintain that only someone with extensive knowledge of a Boeing-777 would have been able to switch off the communications systems on the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

While the investigation becomes more complicated, the search continues to grow in desperation, as the batteries on the black box could die any day, erasing any hope searchers have of picking up “pings” from the location of the ill-fated jet. Batteries of a black box last about a month, and the plane went missing more than five weeks ago.

Four “pings,” which could be from Flight 370’s black box have been detected by a U.S. Navy "Towed Pinger Locator,” but Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Saturday that “the signal from the black box is rapidly fading.”

After expressing optimism about the search on Friday, Abbott cautioned on Saturday that the hunt might continue “for a long time.”

"No one should underestimate the difficulties of the task still ahead of us," Abbott said.

— Elisha Fieldstadt

File picture of the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with the registration number 9M-MRO flying over Poland February 5, 2014. The same plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, with 239 people on board, dropped off air traffic control screens at about 1:30 a.m. on March 8, 2014, less than an hour into a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were no reports of bad weather or mechanical problems.Tomasz Bartkowiak / Reuters file