Australia leads southern search for missing Malaysian plane

10:28, Mar 17 2014
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Journalists attempt to interview a woman who is the relative of a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as she crouches on the floor crying, at the Beijing Capital International Airport.
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A relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries, surrounded by journalists, at the Beijing Capital International Airport on March 8, 2014.
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The Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew lost contact with air traffic controllers early on Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the airline said in a statement.
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An aerial view of an oil spill is seen from a Vietnamese Air Force aircraft in the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, 250 km from Vietnam and 190 km from Malaysia, in this handout photo from Thanh Nien Newpaper taken on March 8.
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A spokesman (centre) of Malaysia Airlines is surrounded by journalists as he gives a briefing about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a hotel in Beijing March 8, 2014.
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A relative (front) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as she walks past journalists at a hotel in Beijing March 9, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew was presumed to have crashed off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday.
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Malaysia Airlines Commercial Director Hugh Dunleavy (centre) speaks to journalists about information of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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Vietnamese Air Force officers sit in the cockpit of a search and rescue aircraft as they fly over the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
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Volunteer rescue workers and religious organisations pray during multi-religion mass prayers for the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang.
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A view of oil slicks (pale line near the bottom right) spotted in an area of the South China Sea about 100 nautical miles (185 km) from Tok Bali Beach in Malaysia's Kelantan state.
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Admiral Datuk Mohd Amdan Kurish, Director General of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, looks at a radar screen while searching for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the South China Sea.
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A relative (left) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is escorted by a caregiver from Malaysia Airlines as they walk in a corridor at a hotel in Beijing.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik applies the final touches to a sand art sculpture he created wishing for the well being of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Life vests and lifesavers are seen onboard a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu island.
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Journalists place their recorders as they get ready for the first briefing of the day at a news conference at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 10.
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Relatives of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cry inside a hotel they are staying, in Putrajaya. China has urged Malaysia to step up the search for the jetliner that went missing with 239 people on board, about two-thirds of them Chinese, and said it has sent security agents to help with an investigation into the misuse of passports.
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An officer looks out of a helicopter during a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, near Tho Chu Island.
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A map of a flight plan is seen on a computer screen during a meeting before a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, at Phu Quoc Airport.
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A woman stands in front of a giant screen showing the number hours since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, in Beijing on March 10.
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A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 waits for news at Lido Hotel on March 10, in Beijing, China. Investigative teams continue to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the 293 passengers that were travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
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Dato' Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, in Kuala Lumpur.
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Clouds hover outside the window of a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft An-26 on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Vietnam's Tho Chu island.
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People believed to be relatives of passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 are escorted to the VIP section of the Beijing Capital International Airport prior to flying to Kuala Lumpur.
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A Chinese relative of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is comforted by a staff member of the airport as she shields her face from journalists at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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A combination photo shows two men whom police said were travelling on stolen passports onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane.
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search.
General Khalid Abu Bakar
Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, addresses a news conference.
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Students from an international school in east China city Zhuji pray for the passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Family members of missing passengers leave a meeting in a Beijing Hotel.
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MESSAGE OF HOPE: A Vietnamese tourist writes a message of hope for missing passengers and crew.
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MESSAGES FOR THE MISSING: Tying a message of hope on a message board for passengers and crew.
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A relative of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel.
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A charity worker comforts an emotional relative of a passenger.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik works on a sand sculpture of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at golden beach at Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Satellite images reveal a possible crash site for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, where three large objects were seen in the water.
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An object sits in the water in satellite imagery released by China.
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The zone where the mystery objects were found.
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What appears to be fuel sits on the water in the area where three large objects were found.
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A crew member from the Royal Malaysian Air Force looks through the window of a Malaysian Air Force CN235 aircraft during a Search and Rescue operation to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd and USS Pinckney are seen en transit in the Pacific Ocean in this US Navy picture taken May 18, 2011. Kidd and Pinkney have been searching for the missing Malaysian airliner and are being re-deployed to the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia's west coast as new search areas are opened in the Indian Ocean.
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Students watch as a group of artists put the finishing touches to a three dimensional artwork at a school in Makati city, metro Manila. According to the artists, the artwork is their way of expressing sympathy towards the relatives of passengers onboard the missing Boeing 777-200ER.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows two maps with corridors of the last known possible location of the missing plane.
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat who was onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers who were travelling onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 watch a television displaying a Malaysian press conference at Lido Hotel in Beijing.
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A family member of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as he watches a message board dedicated to passengers.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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A still image taken from video shows an image of an object spotted in the southern Indian Ocean by the Gaofen-1 high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite of CNSA.
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Pilot Dave Smith (R) gives a pre-flight briefing aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft before taking off to search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at RAAF base Pearce near Perth, March 22, 2014.
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Family members of passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 raise their fists as they shout "return our families" to protest against the lack of new information after a routine briefing given by Malaysia's government and military representatives at Lido Hotel in Beijing March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds up a note that he has just received on a new lead in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, during a news conference at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (bottom C) takes part in a special prayer for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque in Putrajaya March 21, 2014.
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A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 14, 2014.
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A family member of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 covers her face as she cries after a routine briefing given by Malaysia Airlines at Lido Hotel in Beijing, March 22, 2014.
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A girl reads some of the messages of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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A crew member aboard a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion uses binoculars as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean during the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 22, 2014.
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A woman writes another message of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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Map of the southern Indian Ocean locating site where a satellite may have found debris related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; includes satellite images of possible debris. MCT
Search for MH370
Solid matter is pictured floating in the southern Indian Ocean seen from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
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INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds satellite images as he speaks about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the locations and co-ordinates of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the location of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.

Australia will lead a search of the remote southern Indian Ocean for a missing Malaysian jet liner, its prime minister said on Monday, amid mounting evidence the plane's disappearance was a meticulously planned act of sabotage or hijacking.

No trace of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been found since it vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard. Investigators are increasingly convinced it was diverted perhaps thousands of miles off course by someone with deep knowledge of the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial navigation.

A communications system in the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner could have been switched off before or after the last verbal contact with the flight deck, which likely came from the co-pilot, the airline’s chief executive said on Monday.

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HUGE AREA: Searchers examine maps of the Straits of Malacca as they hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

‘‘We don’t know when the ACARS system was switched off. What we know is the last transmission,’’ chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters.

Suspicions of hijacking or sabotage had hardened on Sunday after officials said the last radio message from the cockpit was spoken after someone had begun disabling ACARS, one of the plane’s automatic tracking systems.

But police and a multi-national investigation team may never know for sure what happened aboard the jetliner unless they find the plane, and that in itself is a daunting challenge.

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Satellite data suggests the plane could be anywhere in either of two vast arcs: one stretching from northern Thailand to the borders of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, or a southern arc from Indonesia into the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had spoken to Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak by telephone, and had offered more surveillance resources in addition to the two Orion aircraft his country has already committed.

"He asked that Australia take responsibility for the search in the southern vector, which the Malaysian authorities now think was one possible flight path for this ill-fated aircraft," Abbott told parliament. "I agreed that we would do so."

FOCUS ON CREW

The plane's disappearance has baffled investigators and aviation experts. It disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens off Malaysia's east coast less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.

Malaysian authorities believe that, as the plane crossed the northeast coast and flew across the Gulf of Thailand, someone on board shut off its communications systems and turned sharply to the west.

That has focused attention on the crew. Malaysian police are trawling through the backgrounds of the pilots, flight and ground staff for any clues to a possible motive in what they say is now being treated as a criminal investigation.

The last words from the cockpit of the missing plane were spoken as it was leaving Malaysian-run airspace and being handed over to air traffic controllers in Vietnam.

The sign-off came after one of the plane's data communication systems, which would have enabled it to be tracked beyond radar coverage, had been switched off, Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Sunday.

"The answer to your question is yes, it was disabled before," he told reporters when asked if the ACARS system - a maintenance computer that relays data on the plane's status - had been shut down before the "all right, good night" sign-off.

It is not known who on board spoke those words, which were first revealed last week.

The informal hand-off went against standard radio procedures, which would have called for him to read back instructions for contacting the next control centre and include the aircraft's call sign, said Hugh Dibley, a former British Airways pilot and a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Investigators are likely to examine the recording for any signs of psychological stress and to determine the speaker's identity to confirm whether the flight deck had been taken over by hijackers or the pilot himself was involved, he said.

HOMES SEARCHED

Police special branch officers searched the homes of the captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Abdul Hamid, in middle-class suburbs of Kuala Lumpur close to the international airport on Saturday.

Among the items taken for examination was a flight simulator Zaharie had built in his home.

A senior police official familiar with the investigation said the flight simulator programs were closely examined, adding they appeared to be normal ones that allow users to practice flying and landing in different conditions.

A second senior police official with knowledge of the investigation said they had found no evidence of a link between the pilot and any militant group.

"Based on what we have so far, we cannot see the terrorism link here," he said. "We looked at known terror or extremist groups in Southeast Asia, the links are not there."

Background checks are also being made on the 227 passengers on the flight, including aviation engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat, a 29-year-old Malaysian who worked for a private jet charter company.

"The focus is on anyone else who might have had aviation skills on that plane," the second police source told Reuters.

As an engineer specialising in executive jets, Khairul would not necessarily have all the knowledge needed to divert and fly a large jetliner.

NORTH OR SOUTH?

Electronic signals the plane continued to exchange periodically with satellites suggest it could have continued flying for nearly seven hours after moving out of range of Malaysian military radar off the northwest coast, following a commercial aviation route across the Andaman Sea towards India.

The plane had enough fuel to fly for a total of about seven-and-a-half to eight hours, Malaysia Airlines' Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said on Sunday.

Twenty-six countries are involved in the search, stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the far south of the Indian Ocean.

A source familiar with official U.S. assessments of satellite data being used to try and find the plane said it was believed most likely it turned south sometime after the last sighting by Malaysian military radar, and may have run out of fuel over the Indian Ocean.

The Malaysian government-controlled New Straits Times on Monday quoted sources close to the investigation as saying data collected was pointing instead towards the northern corridor.

Investigators were also looking at disused airfields in the region with runways capable of handling a large passenger aircraft such as the Boeing 777, the paper said.

The New Straits Times also said that the plane dropped to an altitude of 5,000 ft (1524m) or lower, using a low-flying technique known as "terrain masking" to defeat civilian radar coverage after turning back from its scheduled flight path.

Reuters