Australia widens MH370 search; anger, desperation mounts
Australian rescue officials broadened the search area for missing Malaysian flight MH370 on Saturday and boosted the number of spotter planes in the Indian Ocean, with weather conditions favourable. Malaysia jet saga highlights doubts over air traffic radar | Australia widens MH370 searchworld Updated: Mar 22, 2014 20:23 IST
Two weeks after a Malaysia Airlines airliner went missing with 239 people on board, officials are bracing for the "long haul" as searches by more than two dozen countries turn up little but frustration and fresh questions.
The international team hunting Flight MH370 in the remote southern Indian Ocean returned on Saturday to an area where suspected debris was spotted by satellite earlier this week.
Six aircraft and two merchant ships are scouring the area, though Australian officials have cautioned the objects, one up to 24 metres (72 feet) in length, may not be related to the missing aircraft or might have sunk.
Read: Australia widens MH370 search
China, Japan and India are sending planes and Australian and Chinese navy vessels are steaming to the zone, more than 2,000km (1,200 miles) southwest of Perth.
"Weather conditions in the search area are good, with 10 km (six miles) of visibility," said Australian Maritime Safety Authority Sam Cardwell.
Aircraft and ships have also renewed the search in the Andaman Sea between India and Thailand, going over areas that have already been exhaustively swept to find some clue to unlock one of the biggest mysteries in modern aviation.
AMSA handout of Object 1 possibly connected with MH370 search
AMSA handout of Object 2 possibly connected with MH370 search
Malaysian officials have been realistic about their ability to lead the operation with a global dynamic that some have said is beyond the country's technical capabilities and expertise.
"This continues to be a multinational effort coordinated by Malaysia, involving dozens of countries from around the world," Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a briefing on Friday.
Malaysia welcomed "all assistance to continue to follow all credible leads", said Hishammuddin, who is also acting transport minister.
He said searchers were facing the "long haul" but were conscious that the clock was ticking. The plane's "black box" voice and data recorder only transmits an electronic signal for about 30 days before its battery dies, after which it will be far more difficult to locate. Investigators suspect the Boeing 777, which took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing shortly after midnight on March 8, was deliberately diverted thousands of miles from its scheduled path. They say they are focusing on hijacking or sabotage but have not ruled out technical problems.
The search itself has strained ties between China and Malaysia, with Beijing repeatedly leaning on the Southeast Asian nation to step up its hunt and do a better job at looking after the relatives of the Chinese passengers.
Hishammuddin has rejected complaints that the country has botched search efforts or refused to share vital information with other governments.
For families of the passengers, the process has proved to be an emotionally wrenching battle to elicit information, their angst fuelled by a steady stream of speculation and false leads. In a Beijing hotel where the bulk of Chinese families have been awaiting information, the deadlock prompted rage over perceived Malaysian incompetence.
For a handful of Chinese families who chose to be flown to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the heart of search operations, the flow of information has been no more fluid.
On Wednesday, grief erupted into anger when several family members unfurled a protest banner in front of a throng of journalists, demanding the truth from the Malaysian government. The ruckus prompted police to escort the relatives, including a distraught mother, away from the briefing room.
By Friday, the Chinese families who had been staying at a resort south of Kuala Lumpur had to decamp to another hotel as they were displaced by customers for the upcoming Malaysian Formula One grand prix.
Relatives being ignored?
Sarah Bajc, the partner of American passenger Philip Wood, voiced concern that the sudden focus on a particular section of the Indian Ocean was happening at the expense of a land search along a northern route the plane may have taken over South and Central Asia.
"I believe, and I think many people believe, the passengers are being held for some other purpose. But so far that doesn't seem to be listened to," Bajc told CNN
"If there's a chance it was taken by an abductor of some sort, then we should be putting at least some of our resources towards looking on land," she added.
As it enters its third week, the search for MH370 has become one of the longest -- and certainly largest -- in modern aviation history.
No confirmed wreckage was ever found of a Korean Air jetliner that exploded in mid air over the Andaman Sea in 1987 as the result of a bomb placed on board by North Korean agents.
Expectations based on advances in technology, coupled with the modern era's relentless 24-hour media coverage, would seem to rule out public acceptance of the idea that MH370 will never be found.
"This is going to be a long-haul effort," Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Friday.
Scott Hamilton, managing director of US-based aviation consultancy Leeham Co., said the investigation would simply continue for as long as it takes.
"This is, in all probability, a criminal act, and thereby presumed murder of more than 230 people," Hamilton said.
"Worse, if this is some kind of terror event that is a precursor to something bigger in the future, authorities will presumably do all they can to make this determination and work to prevent it -- whatever 'it' is," he added.
Malaysia has asked the FBI to help recover data it said was deleted from a home flight simulator belonging to the plane's chief pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, but otherwise no evidence has emerged to implicate him.
"Tonight all the government could give us was old information. But of course we, the families, want to hear new updates," Malaysian Hamid Ramlat, the father of a passenger, told reporters after emerging from a briefing on Thursday night.
Some experts have argued that the reluctance to share sensitive radar data and capabilities in a region fraught with suspicion amid China's military rise and territorial disputes may have hampered the search.
Two people familiar with the investigation said the search had been slowed in some cases by delays over the paperwork needed to allow foreign maritime surveillance aircraft into territorial waters without a formal diplomatic request.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said on Friday he was grateful for the search craft offered by China and others.
Australian rescue coordinators are awaiting confirmation of the planes and ships offered before they are included in any search schedules, AMSA's Cardwell said.
(REUTERS AND AFP INPUTS)