IN light of the recent events surrounding the ill-fated MH370 flight that disappeared from radar detection in the early hours of March 8, numerous geographic locations have come to light, and one in particular that has become a point of interest among investigators and ordinary folk is a little-known spot in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia.
The atoll, which takes the form of a ring shaped reef, first came to world attention in 2004 after the Asian tsunami disaster and now has resurfaced thanks to conspiracy theories that have sprung up connecting MH370 to it.
Because of its favourable ocean topography, including a deep underwater trench, the island was shielded from major damage during the 2004 tsunami. While a 1.8m-high wave did hit the island, the underwater canyon essentially bore the brunt of the assault and there was no major impact on the island's facilities or its people.
As a US military and intelligence base, the island has remained under a cloud of secrecy for decades. Island Of Shame, a book written by an anthropologist, Assoc Prof David Vine, details how the base was a little-known launch pad for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and may house a top-secret CIA prison where terror suspects are interrogated and tortured. Drawing on interviews with Washington insiders and military strategists, Vine's book claims to expose the secret history of Diego Garcia and also chronicles the story of the island's native inhabitants who were exiled and reportedly continue to fight to return to their homeland.
A report in British newspaper The Daily Telegraph on April 2 said that Chagos Islanders who had been exiled from Diego Garcia by the British in the 1960s are fighting to get their island back (tinyurl.com/p8y5dw8).
Where is it?
Diego Garcia is approximately 3,600km from the east coast of Africa and 4,700km north-west of the west coast of Australia - which puts it right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is approximately 3,500km from Malaysia.
The atoll is the largest and southernmost member of the Chagos Archipelago, which is made up of a combination of coralline rocks formed by volcanic activity above the Reunion Hotspot; the hotspot is a volcanically active spot under the Island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. The atoll's location just outside the path of cyclonic storms makes it a strategic location for ships to rest. The atoll's entire area encompasses approximately 170sqkm, with a length of 24km and width of 11km. That's more than 20 times the total size of Pangkor Island. In the northern part of Diego Garcia is an opening to a lagoon, measuring 6km in length.
A cursory Internet search would have you believe that Diego Garcia could be somewhere relaxing to get away to, with its unpolluted, pristine waters - it even turns up on sites like TripAdvisor and Virtual Tourist.
And according to cruisingoutpost.com, the island hosts some of the best fishing in the world, with tuna, wahoo, snapper, marlin and barracuda on offer.
However, the official British government site, gov.uk, states that the British Indian Ocean Territory is administered from London and there is no British diplomatic or consular representation on Diego Garcia. And that it is NOT a tourist destination. Access is restricted and a permit is required in advance of travel.
There are no commercial flights and permits are only issued to yachts requiring safe passage. Generally, access to Diego Garcia is only permitted to those with connections to the military facility.
What is its function?
The United States has been using the isle for military purposes since the Cold War; back then, it was a base from which to counter Soviet influence in the vicinity. Also, America saw the island as a strategic location, going as far as saying that it could function as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier".
In the present time, the island houses 1,700 military personnel and 1,500 civilian contractors, as well as various naval equipment, including ships and jets.
Diego Garcia also acts as an emergency landing site for Extended Range Twin Engine Operations (ETOPS) commercial aircraft (ie, commercial aircraft that are cleared to fly the long, landless distance over the Indian Ocean).
The atoll was also one of the 33 emergency landing sites designated for Nasa's (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) space shuttles, though it was never used throughout the programme.
While the US has a military base there, Diego Garcia is actually owned by Britain, as it sits in British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). According to the US Commander, Navy Installations Command (cnic.navy.mil), in 1965, with the formation of BIOT, an agreement was signed between the British and American governments in 1966 making the island available to satisfy the defence needs of both countries.
Diego Garcia was discovered by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It was an era when the colonial powers were in competition, especially in this part of the world, with the French, British and Dutch also racing to dominate the spice trade and sea routes to the Far East.
The Chagos Archipelago didn't have economic relevance at that time but due to its strategic location, it served as a resting place for ships.
Originally an uninhabited atoll, Diego Garcia was later colonised by the French. After the 1814 Treaty of Paris, the French surrendered Mauritius and its dependencies, including Diego Garcia, to the British.
The conspiracy theory
One of the biggest conspiracy theories circulating the Internet at this time is the theory presented by freelance journalist Jim Stone.
According to Stone, an American MH370 passenger, Philip Wood, managed to send out an image and voice activated text, along with GPS coordinates that traced the phone to a location a few kilometres away from Diego Garcia. While the photograph - sent via an iPhone 5 - revealed nothing as it was blank (black), the text claimed that Wood was being held hostage by unknown military personnel.
This report sparked speculation that MH370 had landed on the US military base while checks on pilot Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah's flight simulator fuelled further speculation - experts reportedly found Diego Garcia's runway among those Capt Zaharie had used for practice landings.
Here's a video about Diego Garcia produced by the US Navy.