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China images spark new search for MH370 plane

Satellite pictures posted on Chinese science agency's website purport to show debris from missing Malaysia flight.

Last updated: 13 Mar 2014 04:50
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Malaysia and Vietnam have sent aircraft to the site of Chinese satellite images pointing searchers to a location nearer to the missing Malaysian Airlines plane's original flight path south of Vietnam, according to a minister.

The murky images that a Chinese science and defence agency says may show debris from flight MH370 have provided a fresh clue in the search for the Boeing 777 jet.

The revelation on Thursday could provide searchers with a focus that has eluded them since the plane disappeared with 239 people aboard just hours after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on Saturday.

The images originally were posted on the website of China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

That site reports coordinates of a location in the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam and east of Malaysia.

But since the satellite images were taken four days ago, it is far from certain that whatever they show would be in the same location now.

Since then, the search has covered 92,600sq km, first east and then west of Malaysia and even expanded towards India on Wednesday.

'Floating objects'

The Chinese sighting, if confirmed, would be closer to where the hunt started.

The Xinhua report said the images from around 11am on Sunday appear to show "three suspected floating objects" of varying sizes in a 20km radius, the largest about 79ft-by-72ft.

No other governments have confirmed the Xinhua report, which did not say when Chinese officials became aware of the images and associated them with the missing plane.

Two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, and the Chinese government has put increasing pressure on Malaysian officials to solve the mystery of the plane's disappearance.

Earlier, Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's civil aviation chief, said if China informed them of the coordinates, Malaysia would dispatch vessels and planes immediately.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the last message from the cockpit of the missing flight was routine.

"All right, good night," was the sign-off transmitted to air traffic controllers five days ago.

Then the Boeing 777 vanished as it cruised over the South China Sea towards Vietnam, and nothing has been seen or heard of the jetliner since.

Those final words were picked up by controllers and relayed in Beijing to anguished relatives of some of the people aboard Flight MH370.

The Chinese reports of the satellite images came after several days of confusing and conflicting statements from Malaysian officials.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Malaysian military officially disclosed why it was searching on both sides of country: A review of military radar records showed what might have been the plane turning back and crossing westward into the Strait of Malacca.

That would conflict with the latest images on the Chinese website.

For now, authorities said the international search effort would stay focused on the South China Sea and the strait leading towards the Andaman Sea.

China's impatience

Chinese impatience has grown.

"There's too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate," Qin Gang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Beijing.

"We have nothing to hide," Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysian defence minister, said. "There is only confusion if you want to see confusion."

The flight disappeared from civilian radar screens at 1:30am on Saturday at an altitude of about 35,000ft above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and southern Vietnam.

It sent no distress signals or any indication it was experiencing problems.

If all those on board are confirmed dead, it would be the deadliest commercial air accident in 10 years.

The amount of time needed to find aircraft that go down over the ocean can vary widely.

Planes that crash into relatively shallow areas, like the waters off Vietnam, are far easier to locate and recover than those that plunge into undersea canyons or mountain ranges.

Much of the Gulf of Thailand is less than 300ft deep.

The Malaysian government said it had asked India to join in the search near the Andaman Sea, suggesting the aircraft might have reached those waters after crossing into the Strait of Malacca, 400km from the flight's last-known coordinates.

Meeting in China

On Wednesday in Beijing, Malaysian officials met several hundred Chinese relatives of passengers to explain the search, and to relay the last transmission that Malaysian air traffic controllers received before the plane entered Vietnamese airspace, according to a participant in the meeting.

Aviation officials in Vietnam said they never heard from the plane.

Its sudden disappearance led to initial speculation of a catastrophic incident that caused it to disintegrate. Another possibility is that it continued to fly despite a failure of its electrical systems, which could have knocked out communications, including transponders that enable the plane to be identified by commercial radar.

Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage and terrorism, and they are waiting to find any wreckage or debris to determine what went wrong.

Two US Federal Aviation Administration technical experts and a regional representative are in Kuala Lumpur as part of a National Transportation Safety Board team supporting the investigation.

Experts in air traffic control and radar are providing technical help, the board said.

Hishammuddin described the multinational search as unprecedented. At least 43 ships and 39 aircraft from at least eight nations were scouring an area to the east and west of Peninsular Malaysia.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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