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Chinese protest as weather halts Malaysia jet search

25 March 2014, 10:07

Beijing - Irate Chinese relatives of passengers aboard the crashed Flight MH370 scuffled with security personnel outside Malaysia's embassy on Monday, demanding answers about the plane's mysterious and lonely demise in the stormy Indian Ocean.

Malaysia -- decried as "murderers" by the Beijing protesters -- defended its decision to release new analysis of satellite data that determined the plane had plunged into the southern seas far off western Australia.

Gale-force winds and huge waves halted the ocean search for wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines plane, deferring relatives' quest to attain closure with definitive physical proof of the plane's destruction and the loss of its 239 passengers and crew.

Mark Binskin, vice chief of Australia's Defence Force, underscored the dangers from the weather -- as well as the enormous size of area under inspection by aircrews using a mix of high technology and binoculars to scan the waves.

"We're not trying to find a needle in a haystack, we're still trying to define where the haystack is," he told reporters.

The Boeing 777 went missing on March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, dropping off air traffic control screens in what has become one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history. Ever since, relatives in China have accused Malaysia of being deceitful and callous.

Around 200 Chinese relatives, some in tears, linked arms and shouted slogans denouncing the handling of the slow-burning drama, a day after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced "with deep sadness and regret" that the plane had plunged into the ocean.

- 'Words can't ease pain' -

Scuffles broke out when uniformed security personnel tried to block some of the relatives from reaching reporters outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing.

"Return our relatives," the family members shouted at the gates of the mission, which was protected by uniformed police and plainclothes security. Another slogan went: "The Malaysian government are murderers."

One of the most vocal campaigners against the Malaysian government, Wen Wancheng, burst out crying.

"My son, my son, return my son!" screamed the 63-year-old, as relatives behind him chanted slogans, raising their right fists. Behind him others bowed their heads and sobbed.

Chinese authorities normally keep a very tight rein on any protests in Beijing, but occasionally give license to people to vent their feelings, especially against foreign targets such as Japan.

At intersections along the way, police blocked traffic to allow the marchers through, while at the embassy scores of black-clad uniformed police officers kept the roads clear, their walkie-talkies abuzz.

Two-thirds of the passengers aboard the doomed flight were Chinese. China's government has demanded that Kuala Lumpur hand over the satellite data which lay behind Monday's sombre conclusion, provided by British company Inmarsat and verified by British air safety experts.

Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya defended the carrier against criticism that some relatives were told in a text message late Monday that the plane was lost with no survivors.

"Our sole motivation last night... was that the families heard the tragic news before the world did," he said. "There are no words which can ease that pain."

- Australia pledges welcome -

Ahmad Jauhari said the company had deployed more than 700 "dedicated caregivers" to support the next-of-kin, who have been given hotel accommodation as well as initial financial assistance of $5,000 per passenger with more on the way.

He said arrangements would be made to take relatives to the "recovery area", likely Perth from where the search is being coordinated.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said they would be warmly welcomed in their "desperately difficult time" should they make the trip. Australia will facilitate travel for Chinese relatives by waiving its standard visa fees, officials said.

Najib gave no details on where the plane may have been lost, but Inmarsat said it was able to work out which direction it flew by measuring hourly satellite "pings" bounced from the plane.

Numerous sightings of suspected debris, by satellites as well as aircraft criss-crossing the southern Indian Ocean, had raised hopes that wreckage would be found. But none has been retrieved yet.

The US Navy has sent a specialised device to help find the "black box" of flight and cockpit voice data, along with a robotic underwater vehicle that can scan the ocean's depths.

Those efforts will be crucial in determining what caused the Boeing 777 to deviate inexplicably off course and fly thousands of miles in the wrong direction.

Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board. But the lack of evidence has fuelled intense speculation and tormented families.

"Terrorism, pilot suicide and a complex set of mechanical failures never seen before are now the likely possibilities. A simple failure such as a simple fire or structural failure is becoming very unlikely," said aviation consultant Gerry Soejatman.



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