The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 will be suspended if the plane is not found in the suspected crash zone, the three-nation search team of Malaysia, Australia and China has announced.

Close to $135 million has been spent since on a massive underwater search, spanning 120,000 square kilometres in the southern Indian Ocean, since the plane disappeared in March 2014 with 239 people onboard en route from Malaysia to China.

"In the absence of new credible evidence, Malaysia, Australia and China have collectively agreed to suspend the search upon completion of the 120,000 km search," Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said, emphasising that suspending the search did not mean completely stopping it.

The flaperon, a part of the aircraft's wing - was found on Reunion island off the coast of Madagascar. It had been the only confirmed piece of wreckage from the aircraft to be found until March 2016 when another piece of debris was discovered. 


READ MORE: Families wait in anguish for answers to MH370 mystery 


"With less than 10,000 square kilometres of the high priority search area remaining to be searched, ministers acknowledged that despite the best efforts of all involved the likelihood of finding the aircraft is fading," a joint statement said. 

The use of the term "suspended" at the conference was an apparent nod to anguished families who have stepped up demands recently for authorities not to fully abandon efforts to locate the aircraft.

"I don't think I can accept they want to stop searching. I think we, on our own, will try to initiate something. Even if Malaysia does not want to continue maybe some one else will step up and take the position that Malaysia should have taken," Grace Subathiran Nathan, whose mother was on the flight, told Al Jazeera. 

Grey area

It is unclear what steps would be taken once the search was suspended. 

"There is this grey area: What happens once you search 120,000 square km, which could end between October and December? What the ministers were saying is that they will reassess all the debris that has been found," Al Jazeera's Sohail Rahman, reporting from Kuala Lumpur, said. 

"This includes the very important flaperon that was nearly a year ago in Reunion island. It is still with the French authorities. The details and the analysis on that flaperon have not been made public." 

The Boeing 777 vanished on March 8, 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with mostly Chinese nationals abroad, in what remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.

The Australian-led operation is scouring the seafloor of the Indian Ocean where authorities believe the jet went down.

In March 2016, on the two-year anniversary of the flight's disappearance, international investigators said they were yet to arrive at a conclusion about what happened to the jet.

 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies