Australia: ‘Credible lead’ shifts jet search area

A man looks out from a viewing gallery as a Malaysia Airlines aircraft sits on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, March 9, 2014.
A man looks out from a viewing gallery as a Malaysia Airlines aircraft sits on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, March 9, 2014.

PERTH, Australia (AP) — The search zone for the Malaysian airliner that crashed in the Indian Ocean nearly three weeks ago has shifted 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the northeast after new analysis of radar data suggested the plane flew faster than thought and used more fuel, which may have reduced the distance it traveled, Australia said Friday.

The revised search area comes as the weather cleared enough Friday to allow planes to hunt for fresh clues to the fate of the plane carrying 239 people that went missing March 8.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the change was based on new analysis provided by the international investigative team in Malaysia.

“This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated today,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult search, and an agonizing wait for family and friends of the passengers and crew,” he said. “We owe it to them to follow every credible lead and to keep the public informed of significant new developments. That is what we are doing.”

According to continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before contact was lost with the Boeing 777, the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance the aircraft could have flown into the Indian Ocean.

The new area is 319,000 square kilometers (123,000 square miles) and about 1,850 kilometers (1,250 miles) west of Perth, Australia, the launching area for the search. The pervious search area was more southwest and about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) from Perth.

The shift in search areas comes after searchers in planes and ships had scoured parts of the southern Indian Ocean for objects spotted bobbing in sea.

But strong winds and fast currents have made it difficult to pinpoint them, and the search for the plane has yet to produce a single piece of debris — not to mention its so-called black boxes, which could solve the mystery of why the jet, en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, flew so far off-course.

For relatives of the 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the various clues and failed searches so far have just added to their agonizing waits.

Wang Zhen, whose parents were aboard the missing plane, said in a telephone interview in Beijing that he was becoming exasperated.

“There is nothing I can do but to wait, and wait,” he said. “I’m also furious, but what is the use of getting furious?”

In the last week, Japan, Thailand and France have all said their satellites had picked up images of objects that could be debris from the plane. Most of the objects have measured from about 1 meter (3 feet) to about 20 meters (65 feet). Those sightings were in an area southwest of the new zone, and none have been found yet.

Japan’s Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office said the objects its satellite spotted were located about 2,500 kilometers (1,560 miles) southwest of Perth, which would place them in the same general area as the 122 objects spotted by a French satellite on Sunday.

A Thai satellite revealed about 300 objects about 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the southwest of the items seen by the Japanese and French satellites. The photos were taken Monday, one day after the French and two days before the Japanese.

A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the U.S. has also been “sharing imagery as appropriate” with investigators, but he declined to say what it entailed.

It’s unknown whether any of the objects detected by the various satellites were the same. Currents in the ocean can run a meter per second (about 2.2 mph) and wind also could move material.

If and when any bit of wreckage from Flight 370 is recovered and identified, searchers will be able to narrow their hunt for the rest of the Boeing 777 and its flight data and cockpit voice recorders. The plane was supposed to fly from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing but turned away from its route soon after takeoff and flew for several hours before crashing.

Malaysian officials said earlier this week that satellite data confirmed the plane crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. On Thursday, Malaysia Airlines ran a full-page condolence advertisement with a black background in a major Malaysian newspaper.

“Our sincerest condolences go out to the loved ones of the 239 passengers, friends and colleagues. Words alone cannot express our enormous sorrow and pain,” read the advertisement in the New Straits Times.

Officials still don’t know why Flight 370 disappeared. Investigators have ruled out nothing — including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.

Some speculation has focused on the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, but his son, in an interview published Thursday in the New Straits Times, rejected the idea that his father might be to blame.

“I’ve read everything online, but I’ve ignored all the speculation,” Ahmad Seth said. “I know my father better.”

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Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur. Associated Press writers Scott McDonald and Gillian Wong in Kuala Lumpur, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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