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Chinese satellite images may show Malaysian jet debris

By Chris Brummitt & Eileen Ng / Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 03:26 p.m. HST, Mar 12, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia » Murky satellite images that a Chinese science and defense agency said may show debris from the missing Malaysian Airlines jetliner provided a fresh clue Thursday in the search for the plane, pointing searchers to a location nearer to the plane's original flight path south of Vietnam.

The revelation could provide searchers with a focus that has eluded them since the plane disappeared with 239 people aboard just hours after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early Saturday. Since then, the search has covered 35,800 square miles, first east and then west of Malaysia and even expanded toward India on Wednesday.

The Chinese sighting, if confirmed, would be closer to where the frantic hunt started.

The Xinhua report said the images from around 11 a.m. on Sunday appear to show "three suspected floating objects" of varying sizes in a 20-kilometer radius, the largest about 79-by-72 feet.

The images originally were posted on the website of China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. That site reports coordinates of a location in the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam and east of Malaysia.

But since the satellite images were taken four days ago, it is far from certain that whatever they show would be in the same location now.

No other governments have confirmed the Xinhua report, which did not say when Chinese officials became aware of the images and associated them with the missing plane.

Two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese, and the Chinese government has put increasing pressure on Malaysian officials to solve the mystery of the plane's disappearance.

Malaysia's civil aviation chief, Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said Malaysia had not been officially informed by China about the images, which he said he was learning about from the news.

He said if Beijing informs them of the coordinates, Malaysia will dispatch vessels and planes immediately.

"If we get confirmation, we will send something," he told The Associated Press early Thursday.

Until then, he urged caution. "There have been lots of reports of suspected debris."

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the last message from the cockpit of the missing flight was routine. "All right, good night," was the signoff transmitted to air traffic controllers five days ago.

Then the Boeing 777 vanished as it cruised over the South China Sea toward Vietnam, and nothing has been seen or heard of the jetliner since.

Those final words were picked up by controllers and relayed in Beijing to anguished relatives of some of the people aboard Flight MH370.

The Chinese reports of the satellite images came after several days of confusing and conflicting statements from Malaysian officials.

Earlier Wednesday, the Malaysian military officially disclosed why it was searching on both sides of country: A review of military radar records showed what might have been the plane turning back and crossing westward into the Strait of Malacca.

That would conflict with the latest images on the Chinese website.

For now, authorities said the international search effort would stay focused on the South China Sea and the strait leading toward the Andaman Sea.

Chinese impatience has grown.

"There's too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing.

"We have nothing to hide," said Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. "There is only confusion if you want to see confusion."

Flight MH370 disappeared from civilian radar screens at 1:30 a.m. Saturday at an altitude of about 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and southern Vietnam. It sent no distress signals or any indication it was experiencing problems.

If all those on board are confirmed dead, it would be the deadliest commercial air accident in 10 years.

The amount of time needed to find aircraft that go down over the ocean can vary widely. Planes that crash into relatively shallow areas, like the waters off Vietnam, are far easier to locate and recover than those that plunge into undersea canyons or mountain ranges.

Much of the Gulf of Thailand is less than 300 feet deep.

The Malaysian government said it had asked India to join in the search near the Andaman Sea, suggesting the jetliner might have reached those waters after crossing into the Strait of Malacca, 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the flight's last-known coordinates.

Malaysian officials met in Beijing with several hundred Chinese relatives of passengers to explain the search, and to relay the last transmission that Malaysian air traffic controllers received before the plane entered Vietnamese airspace, according to a participant in the meeting.

Aviation officials in Vietnam said they never heard from the plane.

Its sudden disappearance led to initial speculation of a catastrophic incident that caused it to disintegrate. Another possibility is that it continued to fly despite a failure of its electrical systems, which could have knocked out communications, including transponders that enable the plane to be identified by commercial radar.

Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage and terrorism, and they are waiting to find any wreckage or debris to determine what went wrong.

Two U.S. Federal Aviation Administration technical experts and a regional representative are in Kuala Lumpur as part of a National Transportation Safety Board team supporting the investigation. Experts in air traffic control and radar are providing technical help, the board said.

Hishammuddin described the multinational search as unprecedented. Some 43 ships and 39 aircraft from at least eight nations were scouring an area to the east and west of Peninsular Malaysia.

"It's not something that is easy. We are looking at so many vessels and aircraft, so many countries to coordinate, and a vast area for us to search," he told a news conference.

Confusion over whether the plane had been seen flying west prompted speculation that different arms of the government might have different opinions about its location, or even that authorities were holding back information.

Choi Tat Sang, a 74-year-old Malaysian, said his family is still holding out hope that the plane and all on board are safe. His 45-year-old daughter-in-law, Goh Sock Lay, was the chief flight attendant. Her 14-year-old daughter, an only child, has been crying every day since the plane's disappearance.

"We are heartbroken. We are continuing to pray for her safety and for everyone on the flight," he said.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Kuala Lumpur, Aritz Parra and Isolda Morillo in Beijing, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, Joan Lowy in Washington, Cara Anna in New York and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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serious wrote:
My first reaction: Keystone Kops!!
on March 12,2014 | 04:09AM
st1d wrote:
you'd think that with 239 people on board, some of them, especially flight attendants. would have noticed the radical change in course and would have attempted to communicate with someone on the ground using their cell phones. hard to fathom what silenced all of them, pilots, crew and passengers for such a length of time after the hard turn back to west.
on March 12,2014 | 09:32AM
HIE wrote:
Do you really think you can get cell phone reception at 30,000 feet over the water?
on March 12,2014 | 12:20PM
SueH wrote:
If the floating debris is confirmed to have come from the missing jetliner, and because it is in the area where the jet initially disappeared from radar contact, there may never have been a "radical change in course" back to the west. The plane probably crashed in the ocean right near where the debris was found floating and where two oil slicks were initially seen.
on March 12,2014 | 02:57PM
scuddrunner wrote:
The "oil slicks" are bunker oil not Jet A-1.
on March 12,2014 | 04:24PM
nitpikker wrote:
why not make it so transponders can never be turned off.
on March 12,2014 | 09:36AM
serious wrote:
Just pull the circuit breaker!! And with the autopilot, a coordinated turn should not be felt--it was at night and if there was no moon or visual horizon you can't tell. "Someone" might have depressurized the aircraft after disabling the transponder. Lots of things could have happened but the Malaysians are acting like the Obama Administration nobody in charge.
on March 12,2014 | 01:06PM
SueH wrote:
Transponders are made to be turned off, or into standby mode, incase the data they are transmitting is determined to be erroneous (wrong altitude information, wrong reply code, etc.) so the controller's screen won't continue to display incorrect information about a flight. And yes, one way to turn off the transponder is to simply pulled the proper circuit breaker. Large transport category jets always have 2 transponders, but only one is ever used at a time.
on March 12,2014 | 03:06PM
nuuanusam wrote:
With the resources of 5-6 countries and today's technology, it is unfathomable that a 777 jet liner just disappear into thin air.
on March 12,2014 | 10:21AM
gobows wrote:
sounds just like the Aloha Airlines jet that lost the top half of the skin....except this one occurred 30,000 feet in the air.
on March 12,2014 | 03:38PM
2NDC wrote:
I bet Elvis and Michael Jackson will be found with the missing aircraft. :-D
on March 12,2014 | 05:06PM
mitt_grund wrote:
Funny that the news media is not mentioning the Muslim Uyghur insurgency in Xinjiang. Also, the recent stabbing deaths of 29 Chinese at a train station by Muslim Uyghurs, including some women terrorists.

Malaysia would be averse to mentioning that possibility as they are dependent on their tourist trade and the possible involvement fellow Muslims in this strange event would tear the fabric of their tourism base to shreds. There is also the possibility that the Malaysian government is not inclined to any concern about Chinese sojourners, given their longstanding antipathy toward Chinese living in Malaysia, generally. We don't mind your tourist dollar, but we don't like you as a race.

This is not idle chatter. I have heard as much from local Malaysians, who reserve their more vocal criticism for Singapore Chinese who litter and deface the Malaysian countryside, but keep their little city state immaculately clean.

on March 13,2014 | 03:47AM
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