Monday 19 February 2018

Possible jet debris seen in search

Sgt Matthew Falanga, on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, searches for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane (AP)
Sgt Matthew Falanga, on board a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion, searches for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane (AP)
Malaysia's Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein gives an update on the search for the plane in Kuala Lumpur (AP)

A French satellite scanning the Indian Ocean for remnants of a missing plane have found a possible plane debris field containing 122 objects.

A top Malaysian official called it "the most credible lead that we have" in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein also expressed exasperation with the anger rising among missing passengers' relatives in China, who berated Malaysian government and airline officials earlier in the day in Beijing.

About two-thirds of the missing are Chinese, but Mr Hishammuddin pointedly said that Chinese families "must also understand that we in Malaysia also lost our loved ones" as did "so many other nations".

Eighteen days into the search for Flight 370, the latest satellite images are the first to suggest that a debris field from the plane, rather than just a few objects, may be floating in the southern Indian Ocean, though no wreckage has been confirmed.

Previously, an Australian satellite detected two large objects and a Chinese satellite detected one.

All three finds were made in roughly the same area, far south-west of Australia, where a desperate, multinational hunt has been going on for days.

Clouds obscured the latest satellite images, but dozens of objects could be seen in the gaps, ranging in length from one yard or metre to 25 yards (23m).

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Hishammuddin said some of them "appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials".

The images were taken on Sunday and relayed by French-based Airbus Defence and Space, a division of Europe's Airbus Group. The company said in a statement that it has mobilised five observation satellites, including two that can produce very high resolution images, to help locate the plane.

Various floating objects have been spotted in the area by planes over the last week, including today when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said three more objects were seen. The authority said two objects seen from a civil aircraft appeared to be rope, and that a New Zealand military plane spotted a blue object.

None of the objects were seen on a second pass, a frustration that has been repeated several times in the hunt for Flight 370, missing since March 8 with 239 people aboard.

Australian officials did not say whether they received the French imagery in time for search planes out at sea to look for the possible debris field.

It remains uncertain whether any of the objects seen came from the plane; they could have come from a cargo ship or something else.

The search resumed after fierce winds and high waves forced crews to take a break. A total of 12 planes and five ships from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand were participating in the search, hoping to find even a single piece of the jet that could offer tangible evidence of a crash and provide clues to find the rest of the wreckage.

Malaysia announced on Monday that a mathematical analysis of the final known satellite signals from the plane showed that it had crashed in the sea, killing everyone on board.

The new data greatly reduced the search zone, but it remains huge - an area estimated at 622,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometres).

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said: "We're throwing everything we have at this search."

"This is about the most inaccessible spot imaginable. It's thousands of kilometres from anywhere," he later said, and vowed that "we will do what we can to solve this riddle".

Malaysia has been criticised over its handling of the search, though it is one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history. Much of the most strident criticism has come from relatives of the 153 Chinese missing, some of whom expressed outrage that Malaysia essentially declared their loved ones dead without recovering a single piece of wreckage.

At a hotel banquet room in Beijing, a delegation of Malaysian government and airline officials explained what they knew to relatives of those lost. They were met with scepticism and even ridicule by some of the roughly 100 people in audience, who questioned some of the report's findings, including how investigators could have concluded the direction and speed of the plane. One man later said he wanted to pummel everyone in the Malaysian delegation.

Mr Hishammuddin said: "Time will heal emotions that are running high. We fully understand."

"For the Chinese families, they must also understand that we in Malaysia also lost our loved ones. There are so many other nations that have lost their loved ones.

"I have seen some images coming from Australia, very rational. (They) understand that this is a global effort. Not blaming directly on Malaysia, because we are co-ordinating something that is unprecedented."

But one of the main complaints from families - mixed messages from Malaysia - has continued.

Two days after Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said there were no survivors, Mr Hishammuddin allowed for the possibility that some people aboard the plane might still be alive.

"If (the debris) is confirmed to be from MH370, then we can move on to deep sea surveillance search and rescue, hopefully, hoping against hope," he said.

China dispatched a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur, vice foreign minister Zhang Yesui, who met Mr Najib and other top officials, the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency reported.

China, which now has Chinese warships and an icebreaker in the search zone, has been intent on supporting the interests of the Chinese relatives of passengers, backing their demands for detailed information on how Malaysia concluded the jet went down - details Mr Hishamuddin said Malaysia has handed over.

China's support for families is the likely reason why authorities there, normally extremely wary of any spontaneous demonstrations that could undermine social stability, permitted a rare protest outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, during which relatives chanted slogans, threw water bottles and briefly tussled with police who kept them separated from a swarm of journalists.

Though officials believe they know roughly where the plane is, it remains unknown why it disappeared shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur. Investigators have ruled out nothing - including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.

The search for the wreckage and the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders will be a major challenge. It took two years to find the black box from Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, and searchers knew within days where that crash site was.

Press Association

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