MH370: DAY 17

Australian navy ship closing in on 'best lead'

First chance to retrieve suspected debris spotted in the Indian Ocean

An Australian navy ship is closing in on two objects spotted floating in the Indian Ocean, making this the best lead in the hunt for the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that crashed into the southern Indian Ocean.

The HMAS Success could reach the two objects sighted by Australian military aircraft by this morning, Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.

This is the first chance of picking up suspected debris from the plane, following the mounting number of sightings of floating objects in the vicinity.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott telephoned his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak yesterday evening to inform him that an Australian aircraft had spotted a circular object and a rectangular one in the remote seas.

"HMAS Success is on scene and is attempting to locate and recover these objects," Mr Abbott said in a statement to Parliament.

The objects, described as a "grey or green circular object" and an "orange rectangular object", were spotted about 2,500km west of Perth yesterday afternoon.

So far, none of the objects sighted earlier by US, Chinese and French satellites has been located despite an intensive hunt by 10 aircraft from New Zealand, the United States, China and Japan.

Australia's HMAS Success is the only ship in the region but several more ships from China will arrive today, as will the British coastal survey ship, HMS Echo.

Yesterday, a Chinese search plane's sighting of "suspicious" white floating objects raised hopes, but these objects could not be found. China has diverted its icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, to this location.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said another two orange objects of about 1m in length and one white drum were also sighted by search aircraft, but remain unidentified. HMAS Success also detected two radar targets within the search area but could not locate them.

These latest sightings followed reports by an Australian crew over the weekend of a floating wooden pallet and strapping belts in this area. Mr Hishammuddin said yesterday that it was uncertain whether this pallet was among those carried by the Beijing-bound MH370.

The sightings have narrowed the search area to 18,500 sq nautical miles - a much smaller area than the original search area which was almost the size of the US.

Deteriorating weather, how- ever, was expected to continue plaguing the search.

Finding the debris field is critical for locating the aircraft's cockpit recorders, which will emit tracking signals for 30 days.

The plane vanished on March8, meaning there are fewer than a dozen days left to find the black box containing two recorders: one with the last two hours of audio from the cockpit and the other with detailed flight data.

Yesterday, the US Navy also ordered a black box locator to be moved to the area, bringing in technology that can locate black boxes as deep as 6,000m. The Indian Ocean has a depth of 1,200m to 7,000m.

Satellite and military radar data suggests that MH370 turned sharply over the Malaysian peninsula and flew on - possibly for hours - to the middle of the Indian Ocean. Theories to explain its disappearance include hijacking, pilot sabotage, or a catastrophic mid-air event leaving the crew unconscious and the plane to fly on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.

carolynh@sph.com.sg

tanhy@sph.com.sg