By Matt Siegel and Rujun Shen
New satellite images have revealed more than 100 objects in the southern Indian Ocean that could be debris from a Malaysian jetliner missing for 18 days with 239 people on board, Malaysia’s acting transport minister said on Wednesday.
The latest sighting came as searchers stepped up efforts to find some trace of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, thought to have crashed on March 8 after flying thousands of miles off course.
“It must be emphasized that we cannot tell whether the potential objects are from MH370,”Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference. “Nevertheless, this is another new lead that will help direct the search operation.”
The images were captured by France-based Airbus Defence & Space on Monday and showed 122 potential objects in a 400 sq km area of ocean, Hishammuddin said. The objects varied in size from one metre to 23 metres in length, he said.
A dozen aircraft from Australia, the United States, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea were once more scouring the seas some 2,500 km southwest of Perth in the hunt for wreckage on Wednesday, after bad weather the previous day forced the suspension of the search.
“The crash zone is as close to nowhere as it’s possible to be but it’s closer to Australia than anywhere else,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, before leading the country’s parliament in a moment’s silence.
“A considerable amount of debris has been sighted in the area where the flight was last recorded. Bad weather and inaccessibility has so far prevented any of it from being recovered. But we are confident that it will be.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak this week confirmed Flight MH370, which vanished while flying to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean.
Citing satellite-data analysis by British company Inmarsat , he said there was no doubt the Boeing 777 came down in one of the most remote places on Earth – an implicit admission that everyone on board had died.
Recovery of wreckage could unlock clues about why and how the plane had diverted so far off course in one of aviation’s most puzzling mysteries. Theories range from a hijacking to sabotage or a possible suicide by one of the pilots, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.
Australia, China and France have all released satellite images over the past week showing possible debris in the same general area as the latest sighting, but no confirmed wreckage has been located.
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An Australian navy ship returned to the area after being driven away by gale force winds and 20-metre waves on Tuesday, while a Chinese icebreaker and three Chinese navy vessels were now in the search zone.
Two Chinese ships were looking for a two-metre floating object spotted earlier in the day by an aircraft, China’s state news agency Xinhua reported.
The United States has sent an undersea Navy drone and a high-tech black box detector which will be fitted to an Australian Defence vessel due in Perth in the coming days.
The so-called black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder – record what happens during flight, but time is running out to pick up locator beacons that stop about a month after a crash due to limited battery life.
Malaysia said on Tuesday that the US “Towed Pinger Locator” would not arrive in the search area until April 5, which would give it only a few days to find the black box before the beacon battery would be expected to run out.
The prolonged and so far fruitless search and investigation have taken a toll, with dozens of distraught relatives of Chinese passengers clashing with police in Beijing on Tuesday, accusing Malaysia of “delays and deception”.
Malaysia’s confused initial response to the plane’s disappearance and a perception of poor communications have enraged many relatives of the more than 150 Chinese passengers and have strained ties between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.
Chinese special envoy, Zhang Yesui, met Malaysia’s Najib on Wednesday and called for “unremitting efforts” to find the plane, Xinhua said.
Flight MH370 vanished from civilian radar screens less than an hour after taking off and investigators believe someone on the flight may have shut off the plane’s communications systems.
Partial military radar tracking showed it turning west and recrossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot.
The air crash investigation is shaping up as one of the most costly and difficult ever. Normally, an official investigation can only begin once a crash site has been identified. That would give Malaysia power to coordinate and sift evidence.
A government source told Reuters that Malaysia would lead the investigation, but hoped other countries, especially Australia, would play a major role.