By Ben Blanchard and Brian Leonal
BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Shot down by a military jet. Blown up by terrorists. Hijacked by elves.
Ranging from the barely believable to the wildly absurd, popular theories about the fate of a missing Malaysian airliner circulate widely even as anguished relatives wait for news of its 239 passengers and crew.
Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanished early on Saturday and a huge search by ships and aircraft from 10 nations has yet to find a trace of it. While they still cannot rule out a hijacking or bomb, officials seem increasingly sceptical that foul play caused its disappearance.
Such doubts have done little to halt conspiracy theories spreading through the media and Internet, especially in the countries from which most passengers hailed: China and Malaysia.
Users of China's popular Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo have discussed theories ranging from an attack by Uighur militants from the country's far western region of Xinjiang to stock market manipulation.
"Maybe it was hit by a meteor?" wrote a user called laxnic. "It would have been a more powerful impact than a missile and would have split the plane into tiny pieces. It would all have been over so fast."
In Malaysia's social media, much talk revolves around the flight code, with users claiming "MH" stands for the Malay words "masih hilang" - still lost.
News that two passengers boarded the flight using passports stolen in Thailand fuelled hijacking theories in both China and Malaysia, although police have since said that they doubt a connection between the pair and the loss of the plane.
"The plane did not crash - at least we've not seen any pictures to suggest this, and no wreckage has been found. It's being held prisoner in some country for political reasons," suggested BoZ_ZiE on Sina Weibo.
Malaysia's pro-government and usually staid New Straits Times quoted a shaman who said the aircraft had been "hijacked by elves" and was suspended in mid-air.
For some, the speculation feeds an obsession or provides macabre diversion. "Terrorism? Accident? Supernatural?" asks a website called Common Sense Conspiracy, before running through its explanations for MH370's disappearance.
Elsewhere, the website discusses the "imminent" eruption of Japan's Mount Fuji and the possibility that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a drug overdose in February, was assassinated.
For others, however, improbable claims reflect a heartbreaking struggle to understand the fate of loved ones.
Chinese media have reported family members calling relatives on the missing flight and hearing the mobile phones ring out before being mysteriously hung up.
Others claimed to have seen relatives still logged onto Chinese social messaging apps such as QQ, and of getting no response to their messages.
The advent of websites and apps that allow the public to track flights almost in real-time has been a boon for conspiracists.
Agenda NWO, a YouTube channel dedicated to "awakening the masses to the elite new world order agenda", uses data from the Flightradar24 website to conclude that MH370 was shot down by an unidentified military jet over the Gulf of Thailand.
Like many conspiracy theories, the conclusion draws on real-life precedents. In 1988, a U.S. warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 passengers and crew.
Another YouTube channel, identified only as DAHBOO77, also used what it claimed was Flightradar24 data, this time to show MH370 flying over Vietnam with another aircraft close on its tail, before vanishing south of China's Hainan Island.
"Did you see that?" asks the excited narrator. "Now it's gone. Right there, in that area."
PAIN AND SUFFERING
In Malaysia, which had 38 nationals on the flight, some have been offended by loose talk about MH370's fate.
A Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party politician apologised on Twitter after suggesting the plane had disappeared in a "New Bermuda Triangle" in Vietnamese waters.
"If, at all, my comments did cause unnecessary disturbance and disheartened feelings, my greatest apologies," tweeted Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin.
And in a statement issued on Monday, the Uyghur American Association called for a halt to speculation that MH370 was downed by Uighur militants, which "only aggravates the pain and suffering of the loved ones whose relatives were on board".
Among the missing passengers is a celebrated Uighur artist called Memetjan Abla.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang urged people to stay calm and stop spreading rumours about the missing plane.
"There are many different pieces of information at present, dazzling the eyes and making people not know what to do," he told reporters.
(Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Alex Richardson)