KUALA LUMPUR : A Malaysia Airlines plane with 166 people aboard was forced to make an emergency landing in Kuala Lumpur early Monday in another blow to the flag-carrier’s safety image after the loss of flight MH370.

Flight MH192, bound for Bangalore in India, turned back to Kuala Lumpur shortly after it was discovered that a tyre had burst on take-off, the airline said.

“As safety is of utmost priority to Malaysia Airlines, the aircraft was required to turn back to KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport),” the airline said in a statement. The episode caused deep anxiety among passengers, with some crying or reciting prayers as the plane circled for hours off the coast, Malaysian media reported. The plane circled in order to burn up fuel - a common practice in such landings, designed to make the plane lighter and minimise fire risks.

“The passengers were very scared when we learnt that the flight was having trouble,” the New Straits Times quoted a Dutch traveller as saying. “Some were crying, while most of us had already started reciting prayers.”

The plane landed safely at 1:56 am (1756 GMT), nearly four hours after take-off, and all 159 passengers and seven crew members disembarked, the airline said.

It added that tyre debris discovered on the runway had led to the decision to bring the Boeing 737-800 aircraft back. “They have landed safely - thank God,” tweeted Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said police would probe the incident, including the possibility of sabotage, though he gave no indication sabotage was suspected. “We will take the necessary steps to investigate from all angles,” he was quoted by Malaysian media as saying.

A Malaysia Airlines spokeswoman confirmed the re-scheduled flight took off at 3:35 pm local time on Monday.

Malaysia Airlines is still reeling from the loss and presumed crash of MH370, which disappeared on March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The plane is now believed to have crashed into the remote Indian Ocean with 239 people aboard after inexplicably diverting from its route.

Malaysia Airlines had previously enjoyed a good safety record, as did the Boeing 777 aircraft used for MH370.

An Australian-led multi-nation search effort is now scouring a remote area of the Indian Ocean in a bid to find the jet’s wreckage and recover its flight data recorders to determine what happened.

Malaysia’s government and the airline have come under harsh criticism from Chinese relatives of MH370 passengers - two thirds of its 227 passengers were from China - who have alleged a bungling response and a cover-up.