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MH370 search shifted over 1,000 km after 'most credible lead'

March 28, 2014 18:15 IST

The search for the crashed Malaysian jet on Friday dramatically shifted to a new area 1,100 km further northeast in the Indian Ocean after authorities received "the most credible lead" of radar data suggesting the plane flew faster and ran out of fuel more quickly than estimated.

A New Zealand military plane searching the new area found objects, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, coordinating the search operations, said on Twitter.

The AMSA said "sightings need confirmation by ship – not expected until tomorrow".

It said the search would now focus on an area 1,100 km further north-east in the southern Indian Ocean off the western Australian coast. The new area is closer to land and has calmer weather than the old one, making search operations easier.

AMSA said that the new search area was about 1,850 km west of Perth and covered some 319,000 sq km.

However, this means the huge, isolated areas of the ocean that ships and planes had combed for more than a week -- and where various satellites detected objects that might be debris from the missing plane -- are no longer of interest.

Ten aircraft from six countries -- Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States – were diverted to the new area of search operations.

Five Chinese ships and an Australian naval vessel were heading towards the new zone of interest.

The AMSA said the new information was based on analysis of radar data from Malaysia of the Boeing 777-200 before contact was lost 20 days ago.

Malaysian officials have concluded that, based on satellite data, the jet flew into the sea somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. Search efforts had until today been focusing on an area some 2,500 km to the southwest of Perth.

The Beijing-bound jetliner - carrying 239 people, including five Indians, an Indo-Canadian and 154 Chinese nationals -- had vanished after taking off from Kuala Lumpur and crashed in the remote southern Indian Ocean.

Using satellite images, several nations have identified objects floating in the sea in that area, but there has been no confirmation as yet that any of them are from the plane.

A statement from AMSA said the latest advice had come from the international investigation team in Malaysia.

It said that the Australian Transport Safety Bureau had examined the advice "and determined that this is the most credible lead to where debris may be located".

"The new information is based on continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost," AMSA said.

"It indicated that the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel usage and reducing the possible distance the aircraft travelled south into the Indian Ocean."

The new search area is "considerable" and conditions there "remain challenging," acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.

Australian officials also played down the significance of hundreds of possible objects detected by satellites in the previous search region, some of which had been described by authorities as important leads.

"In regards to the old areas, we have not seen any debris," John Young, general manager of emergency response for the Australian maritime authority, told reporters in Canberra.

"And I would not wish to classify any of the satellite imagery as debris, nor would I want to classify any of the few visual sightings that we made as debris. That's just not justifiable from what we have seen."

Officials had repeatedly cautioned that the objects seen in the satellite imagery could just be flotsam that had fallen off cargo ships.

But Hishammuddin said the new search area "could still be consistent" with the idea that materials spotted in recent satellite photos over the previous search area are connected to the plane. The materials could have drifted in ocean currents, he said.

The potential flight path could be the subject of further refinement as investigations continued, the AMSA statement said, adding that satellites would now focus on the new area.

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

The new search zone is closer to Western Australia, which should enable the surveillance aircraft to spend longer scanning the sea for debris.

Meanwhile, Japanese satellite images have shown around 10 floating objects off Australia that are "very probably" from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the government said on Friday.

It was not immediately clear whether the objects spotted by Japan lay within the new zone.

The objects are highly likely to be part of the missing plane, given their location and their proximity to other finds, an official said.

A Thai satellite had spotted hundreds of floating objects in southern Indian Ocean.

The image of 300 floating objects was taken by the Thaichote satellite on Monday, a day after images from a French satellite purported to show 122 such objects.

Earlier, Australian and Chinese satellites had also detected unidentified debris.

Dejected family members of the Chinese passengers aboard the missing plane walked out of a briefing by Malaysian officials today in Beijing, leaving the panel to stare at ranks of empty chairs.

Image: A Royal Australian Air Force captain looks at a map during search ops for missing the missing Flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean

Photograph: Michael Martina/Reuters

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