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.