A Chinese government agency has released satellite images it said showed unidentified "floating objects" in the "suspected crash area" of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, but there is no immediate confirmation the pieces are part of the plane's wreckage.
The site is near where a New Zealander working on an oil rig reported seeing a plane burning in the sky.
The three images, published by the Chinese State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) were taken at 11am on Sunday, March 9, more than 30 hours after the plane was believed to have disappeared.
The pictures, taken by the Gaofen-1 satellite, show what appear to be three large floating objects in the South China Sea, some 226 kilometres from the last recorded transponder signal in the waters northeast of Kuala Lumpur and south of Vietnam.
According to the agency, the pieces measure 13m by 18m, 14m by 19m and 24m by 22m. For context, the missing Boeing 777-200 aircraft is about 64m long.
The site is near an oil rig off Vietnam where a New Zealand worker claimed to have witnessed a burning object in the sky about the time the missing flight is believed to have crashed.
The agency did not explain why the images were not released until Wednesday.
Former US National Transportation Safety Board managing director Peter Goelz told CNN that China may have been reluctant to release the images earlier because "they may not want to reveal what kind of satellite capabilities they have".
The latest Chinese report is likely to be met with caution after images released early this week of suspected aircraft wreckage in the Gulf of Thailand proved to be wrong. Since then, the search area has grown from the Gulf of Thailand to include the Straits of Malacca and Andaman Sea east of the Malaysian peninsula.
It is also the latest bit of contradictory information to be released, with Malaysian authorities investigating "radar blips" which indicated the plane had veered sharply off course and had headed west toward the Indian Ocean.
"Today we are still not sure that it is the same aircraft," Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said of the radar blips. "That is why we are searching in two areas."
At a hostile press conference military officials said the last possible recording of flight MH370 was at 2.15am on Saturday morning 321km north west of Penang. The authorities had initially said air traffic control lost contact at 1.20am on the east side of the peninsula. On Tuesday the head of the armed forces was reported as saying it was picked up by military radar at 2.40am - a statement he has since denied making.
Even with the new Chinese satellite imagery, with so many ships and aircraft combing over the plane's original flight path, "the Gulf of Thailand is pretty much saturated at this point", Commander William Marks, spokesman of the US Seventh Fleet, said.
"We're now going over the same areas."
Chinese criticism of Malaysian authorities has intensified with an editorial in the state-run Global Times condemning conflicting statements issued by officials in Kuala Lumpur. The piece said the investigation appeared "chaotic" and asked whether Malaysia was deliberately concealing information.
A Chinese foreign ministry delegation sent to Kuala Lumpur held a three-hour meeting with family members of Chinese passenger families who continue to arrive in the Malaysian capital searching for news.
"We will not leave until the aircraft is located," said Guo Shaochun, the deputy director of consular affairs at the foreign ministry.
China has deployed 10 satellites to help in the search for the missing aircraft, as well as eight ships and several aircraft.
In a massive crowdsourcing effort, DigitalGlobe, which operates commercial imaging satellites, made available high-resolution images from the weekend of the area where evidence suggests the plane may have crashed.
It was asking volunteers to log onto its Tomnod website and comb through images in the hope of locating something of interest.
Malaysia has been criticised for giving conflicting and confusing information on the last known location of aircraft.
"The Malaysians deserve to be criticised - their handling of this has been atrocious," said Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"They don't know where the plane is; they have briefed key partners and changed the story several times," he said.
The air force chief, in his remarks on Wednesday, denied saying a day earlier that military radar had tracked MH370 flying over the Strait of Malacca, saying that the radar sighting was still unconfirmed.
Amid the confusion, Vietnam briefly scaled down search operations in waters off its southern coast, saying it was receiving poor information from Malaysia. Hanoi later said the search was back on in full force and was even extending on to land.
"As long as the plane is not found, we would continue doing our mission," Vo Van Tuan, spokesman for Vietnam Search and Rescue Committee, told reporters in Hanoi.
China also said its air force would sweep areas in the sea, clarifying however that no searches over land were planned.
Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause for the plan's disappearance. Malaysian police have said they were investigating whether any passengers or crew on the plane had personal or psychological problems that might shed light on the mystery, along with the possibility of a hijacking, sabotage or mechanical failure.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records of any commercial aircraft in service. Its only previous fatal crash came on July 6 last year when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 struck a seawall with its undercarriage on landing in San Francisco, killing three people.
Boeing Co, the US aircraft company that makes the 777, has declined to comment beyond a brief statement saying it was monitoring the situation.
MAP SHOWING WHERE KIWI SIGHTED 'BURNING OBJECT'
THE EMAIL ABOUT A 'BURNING OBJECT'
- Stuff, AP, Reuters
- Sydney Morning Herald
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