PERTH (AFP) - Thunderstorms and gale-force winds threatened to impede a frantic international search on Thursday for wreckage from Flight MH370 after satellite images of more than 100 floating objects sparked fresh hopes of a breakthrough.
Malaysia said the imagery taken in recent days by a French satellite showed "122 potential objects" in the remote southern Indian Ocean, although nothing has yet been pulled from the treacherous seas despite a multinational recovery operation.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has cautioned that it was impossible to determine whether the objects were related to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 which crashed on March 8 with 239 people aboard after mysteriously disappearing.
But the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the search some 2,500 kilometres south-west of Perth, said they were in an area authorities have pinpointed as a potential crash zone.
"Positions in the satellite information released by Malaysia Remote Sensing Agency were within Wednesday's search area," it said as a fleet of planes were set to leave for the area before the weather worsens.
Six military planes from Australia, China, Japan and the United States will fly sorties throughout the day, along with five civil aircraft, scouring two areas covering a cumulative 78,000 square kilometres in an increasingly frantic hunt for clues to exactly what happened.
MH370 deviated inexplicably off its intended course between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, flying thousands of kilometres in the wrong direction before plunging into the sea. Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board.
Five ships are also in the search zone, including Australia's HMAS Success and Chinese vessels Xue Long, Kunlunshan, Haikou and Qiandaohu.
But they are operating in a wild expanse of ocean described by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as "about as close to nowhere as it's possible to be" where gale-force winds and towering waves are routinely whipped up.
AMSA and Australia's Bureau of Meteorology warned the weather was expected to deteriorate later Thursday.
"Potentially thunderstorms down there as well as winds picking up, and they could get to gale force conditions," said bureau spokesman Neil Bennett.
The new images, provided by European aerospace giant Airbus and depicting some objects as long as 23 metres (75 feet), came as US lawyers fired the first salvo in an expected barrage of lawsuits on behalf of grieving families.
Seeking closure, anguished families of those aboard are desperately awaiting hard evidence, which the aviation industry hopes can also provide clues to what caused one of aviation's greatest mysteries.
But as the search continued, US law firm Ribbeck Law Chartered International said it was getting the ball rolling on potentially "multi-million dollar" lawsuits against Malaysia Airlines and Boeing.
"We are going to be filing the lawsuits for millions of dollars per each passenger based on prior cases that we have done involving crashes like this one," the firm's head of aviation litigation, Monica Kelly, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
A separate statement by the firm, which filed an initial court petition in the US state of Illinois on Tuesday, said the two companies "are responsible for the disaster of Flight MH370".
The airline declined detailed comment.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that satellite data indicated the plane plunged into the sea in a region off western Australia, possibly after running out of fuel.
MH370 relatives have endured more than a fortnight of agonising uncertainty.
Two-thirds of the passengers were from China, and relatives there have criticised Malaysia in acid terms, accusing the government and airline of a cover-up and botching the response.
The sister of New Zealand victim Paul Weeks also lashed out Thursday.
"The whole situation has been handled appallingly, incredibly insensitively," Sara Weeks told Radio Live in New Zealand.
"The Malaysian government, the airline, it's just all been incredibly poor."
Scores of Chinese relatives protested outside Malaysia's embassy in Beijing on Tuesday and China kept up the pressure, with Premier Li Keqiang urging Malaysia Wednesday to involve "more Chinese experts" in the investigation, according to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
While Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted, other scenarios include a hijacking, pilot sabotage or a crisis that incapacitated the crew and left the plane to fly on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.
Focus has also been on the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, with the FBI Wednesday saying it was close to completing an analysis of data from a flight simulator taken from his home, at the request of the Malaysians who wanted help to recover files deleted from the hard drive.