Possible debris off Australia a "credible lead" for missing Malaysia jet
SYDNEY/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Aircraft and ships ploughed through dire weather in search of objects floating in remote seas off Australia that Malaysia's government called a "credible lead" in the trans-continental hunt for a jetliner missing for nearly two weeks.
New Zealand's air force, whose P-3K2 Orion returned from a 2 1/2-hour search mission in the Indian Ocean early on Friday, said it had found nothing that could have come from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 which disappeared on March 8.
"The crew never found any object of significance," Kevin Short, air vice marshal at New Zealand's Defense Forces, told Radio New Zealand.
"Visibility wasn't very good, which makes it harder to search the surface of the water," he said, adding that the plane had flown at around 1,000 feet over the sea.
The large objects which Australian officials said were spotted by satellite four days ago are the most promising find in days as searchers scour a vast area for the plane lost with 239 people on board.
A Norwegian merchant ship arrived in the area on Thursday, but officials cautioned it could take days to confirm if the objects were part of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. Malaysia's government said the search would continue elsewhere despite the sighting in the southern Indian Ocean.
The area where the objects were spotted is around 2,500 km (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, roughly corresponding to the far end of a southern track that investigators calculated the aircraft could have taken after it was diverted.
"Yesterday I said that we wanted to reduce the area of the search. We now have a credible lead," Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
A search for the plane that began in the tropical waters off Malaysia's east coast has now switched to the vast, icy southern oceans between Australia, southern Africa and Antarctica.
In addition to the New Zealand craft, two Royal Australia Air Force AP-3C Orions and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon were involved in Thursday's search, which was called off late in the evening and will resume on Friday.
There have been many false leads and no confirmed wreckage found from Flight MH370 since it vanished from air traffic control screens off Malaysia's east coast early on March 8, less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.
Hishammuddin said the information on the objects received from Australia had been "corroborated to a certain extent" by other satellites, making it more credible than previous leads.
The larger of the objects measured up to 24 meters (79 ft), long and appeared to be floating in water several thousand meters deep, Australian officials said. The second object was about five meters (16 feet) long. Arrows on the images pointed to two indistinct objects apparently bobbing in the water.
"It's credible enough to divert the research to this area on the basis it provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage from the debris field," Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore John McGarry told a news conference in Canberra.
The satellite images, provided by U.S. company DigitalGlobe, were taken on March 16, meaning that the possible debris could by now have drifted far from the original site.
Australian officials said an aircraft had dropped a series of marker buoys in the area, which will provide information about currents to assist in calculating the latest location.
The captain of the first Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion plane to return from the search area described the weather conditions as "extremely bad" with rough seas and high winds.
A Norwegian car carrier diverted from its journey from Madagascar to Melbourne and had arrived in the search area, the ship's owner said. A Royal Australian Navy ship equipped to recover any objects was also en route.
China's icebreaker for Antarctic research, Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, will set off from Perth to search the area, Chinese state news agency Xinhua cited maritime authorities as saying. About two-thirds of the 227 passengers on Flight MH370 were Chinese nationals.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in a telephone call that he hoped Australia would do all it could to search the area and offer assistance to Chinese search ships, China's Xinhua news agency reported.
"At present, search and rescue work is quite difficult, and the situation in the relevant seas is complex. As long as there is a thread of hope, we must put in 100 percent effort," Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.