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Australia spots possible plane debris

20 March 2014, 10:39

Canberra - Australia said on Thursday that two objects possibly related to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had been sighted at sea, marking a potential breakthrough in the nearly two-week search for the aircraft and its 239 passengers and crew.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament that "new and credible information" based on satellite imagery had come to light, and four long-range surveillance planes were being diverted to look into the find in the southern Indian Ocean.

"Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified," Abbot said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority had said that the vast area it was scouring had been "significantly refined" following closer analysis of flight MH370's fuel reserves.

The Boeing 777 vanished in the early hours of 8 March after veering drastically off course over the South China Sea while en route to Beijing.

Sketchy radar and satellite data had resulted in investigators proposing two vast search corridors, stretching south into the Indian Ocean and north over South and Central Asia.

Most analysts had favoured the maritime southern corridor, pointing out the unlikelihood of the airliner passing undetected over nearly a dozen countries.

But the international search has been marked by numerous false leads, and Abbott sought to temper expectations.

'What have they found?'

"We must keep in mind the task of locating these objects will be extremely difficult and it may turn out that they are not related to the search for flight MH370," he said.

The head of Malaysia's civil aviation authority, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said he was yet to receive any information from Australia.

"What have they found? They have found something? We have not received anything yet from them," Azharuddin told AFP.

The Malaysian authorities have been criticised for their handling of the investigation, especially by relatives of the passengers on board.

Nearly two-thirds of those on board were Chinese, and there were chaotic, emotional scenes on Wednesday when a group of tearful Chinese relatives tried to gatecrash Malaysia's tightly controlled daily media briefing at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur airport.

Shouting and crying, the relatives unfurled a protest banner reading "Give us back our families", and accused the Malaysian authorities of withholding information and doing too little to find the plane.

If the plane is found in the ocean, fundamental questions will remain as to what caused it to crash .

Deleted data

A US official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said Malaysia had asked the FBI to help recover data deleted from a flight simulator in the home of the missing plane's chief pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

Malaysian police removed the simulator from Zaharie's home on Saturday, after investigators said they believed the plane had been deliberately diverted from its intended route by someone on board.

In his first on-camera comments on the mystery, US President Barack Obama, who is due to visit Malaysia next month, offered thoughts and prayers on Wednesday to the anguished relatives of the missing passengers.

"I want them to be assured that we consider this a top priority," he said in a television interview at the White House.

Obama stressed there had been "close co-operation" with the Malaysian government and added that the United States had put "every resource that we have available" at the disposal of the search process.

There were three US nationals, including an infant, on board.

The New York Times quoted a senior US law enforcement official as saying FBI agents in Kuala Lumpur would likely copy the hard drive of the captain's simulator and send the contents back to analysts in the United States who specialise in retrieval of deleted computer data.

"Right now, it's the best chance we have of finding something," the official said.

Zaharie, a 33-year veteran of the airline, was highly regarded by his peers. But suspicion has clouded him since investigators concluded the plane's communication systems were likely disabled manually and the aircraft diverted by a skilled aviator.

Screaming relatives

Security was strengthened on Thursday at the airport hotel where the protest a day earlier by angry Chinese relatives played out in front of the international media.

Several police officers guarded the entrance to the Sama Sama Hotel and new barriers were erected restricting access to the area around the briefing room.

One hotel official told AFP that police had briefed hotel security on preventing "suspicious people" from entering.

Wednesday's ugly scenes of screaming women being forcibly carried from the briefing room only compounded the pressure on the Malaysian authorities, who argue they are doing everything possible to resolve one of the biggest mysteries of the modern aviation era.

Peter Weeks, whose brother Paul, 39, was on the plane, said there had been no official communication from any government figures in Malaysia.

"The information we get is no better than what is in the media," he told CNN.

"You spend 24 hours a day thinking about it really; every waking moment and even the few moments of sleep you get.

"There's no solid information about anything," he said.



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