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Five things to know about India's Andaman Islands

By Katia Hetter and Marnie Hunter, CNN
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
An Indian military search operation for the missing airliner is being launched from Port Blair in the Andaman Islands.
An Indian military search operation for the missing airliner is being launched from Port Blair in the Andaman Islands.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Only three dozen of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are inhabited
  • The airport runway in Port Blair is long enough for a 777
  • Landing a large aircraft in the highly militarized area without detection unlikely, experts say

(CNN) -- The Andaman Islands are at the center of one of the newest theories in the increasingly tangled search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Analysis of radar data revealed Friday by Reuters suggests the plane was flying toward the Indian Ocean archipelago. Reuters cited unidentified sources familiar with the investigation.

Aviation experts and locals are debating whether it would even be possible for a giant 777 to land -- or even approach -- the islands undetected. An Indian military search operation is being launched from Port Blair, the administrative center for the islands.

Here are five things to know about the islands now enveloped in the missing plane mystery:

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They're remote and mostly uninhabited

The Andaman Islands are part of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands territory. There are 572 islands in the territory, only three dozen of which are inhabited. The territory has a population of nearly 380,000, according to India's 2011 census.

The Andaman group is about 850 miles (1,370 kilometers) east of the Indian subcontinent in the Indian Ocean. Most of the population descends from immigrants from South Asia. India has designated five indigenous tribal groups in the territory as "particularly vulnerable" due to the loss of sustaining resources and customs.

The airport's runway is long enough for a 777

The main airport, Veer Savarkar International Airport in Port Blair, is on the east coast of South Andaman Island, one of the three largest islands. Airport officials hope to have night landing equipment this year, but only daytime flights are permitted now. The airport is an Indian navy facility with a civil enclave administered by the Airports Authority of India. Indian authorities own the only four airstrips in the region, according to Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle newspaper.

The Port Blair airport's runway could accommodate a Boeing 777. The runway is 10,794 feet in length (3,290 meters), a couple of thousand feet longer than Boeing's requirements for landing a fully loaded 777 in poor weather.

It's hard to imagine the Boeing 777 landing at any of the remote island chain's mostly military airstrips without anyone noticing. The islands are in a strategically important area for India. It's a highly militarized zone with surveillance capacities covering a large part of the Indian Ocean, which would make it nearly impossible for an unidentified aircraft to enter the zone undetected.

"There is no chance, no such chance, that any aircraft of this size can come toward Andaman and Nicobar Islands and land," Giles said.

The 2004 tsunami hit the islands hard

Thousands of India's nearly 11,000 deaths in the December 26, 2004, tsunami were on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The tsumani, which was triggered by an undersea earthquake off Indonesia's Sumatra, killed more than 283,000 people across a dozen countries.

It's a former penal colony

The Andaman Islands were a British penal colony for a short time in the 1790s and then again from 1858 when a new prisoner settlement at Port Blair was established. The penal colony in the Andamans was abolished after the British recaptured the islands from Japanese occupation during World War II. India took over administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1947 when it gained independence.

Marco Polo a visitor, scene of Sherlock Holmes mystery

Marco Polo is thought to have visited the islands in the 13th century, calling one island "Angamanain." The Andaman Islands also star in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novel "The Sign of the Four."

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