Search for plane scaled back as crews head home

AFP, PERTH, Australia

Thu, May 01, 2014 - Page 6

The intensive air search for wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 officially ended yesterday as the hunt was drastically scaled back, with ships also leaving the Indian Ocean area where the plane is believed to have crashed.

Australian authorities said the focus would move “over the coming weeks” to an intensified undersea search in the quest to find out what happened to the plane that disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

Eight nations have been involved in the Indian Ocean hunt — Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, the US, Britain and China — with more than 300 sorties flown across a vast expanse of water in the search for debris, but with nothing to show for their efforts from the air since March 18, the planes have been stood down.

“Most of the aircraft will have left by the end of today,” a spokesman for the Australian-led Joint Agency Coordination Centre said, although an Australian P-3 Orion would remain on standby in Perth.

The US, Japan, New Zealand and Malaysia confirmed that their aircraft were returning to base.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) declined to say whether China’s aircraft were being withdrawn.

The majority of the passengers on board the missing jet were Chinese.

“I repeatedly said that, in the next phase, the Chinese side will continue to actively support and take an active part in the search operations,” he told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing. “We will stay in close communication and coordination with all relevant parties.”

As many as 14 ships from Australia, China and Britain were involved in scanning the ocean surface for debris or black box signals, but many of these are also pulling out.

Despite the failure to find wreckage, authorities insist they are looking in the right area and dismissed claims by a marine exploration company that material found in the Bay of Bengal could be from the missing flight.