Countries searching for 777 to meet on next step

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Senior officials from Malaysia, Australia and China will meet early next week to decide on the next step in the search for the Malaysia Airlines jet, while expressing confidence Friday that the hunt was on the right track despite no wreckage being found so far.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the challenges were huge but he told reporters, “ I believe we will find MH370 sooner or later.”

Hishammuddin said he will travel to Canberra for the meeting on Monday on the approach forward regarding deployment of assets, engagement with victims’ families and expert and technical advice.

An unmanned sub continued to scan the Indian Ocean floor off western Australia where sounds consistent with a plane’s black box were detected in early April. Additional equipment is expected to be brought in within the next few weeks to scour an expanded underwater area. The aerial search for surface debris ended this week.

Angus Houston, the Australian head of the search operation, said he was confident the wreckage was in that area based on the most promising leads. He said, however, that the chance of the U.S. Navy’s Bluefin 21 robotic sub finding the wreckage are “probability … lower than it was when we started the search.”

Houston said the ministerial meeting was crucial to “formalize the way ahead to ensure the search continues with urgency and that it doesn’t stop at any stage.”

He said that the search could take another eight to 12 months but “we are totally committed to find MH370.”

Houston also said that Bangladeshi ships, including a vessel fitted with sonar equipment, had so far found nothing in the northern Bay of Bengal, where a resource survey company, Australia-based GeoResonance Pty Ltd., had claimed it found possible plane wreckage.

According to Hishammuddin, Malaysia was still considering whether to hire private deep sea vessels to search the Bay of Bengal area as it could distract the main search and cost involved would be high.

“Many leads in the past have proven to be negative and this is similar to what we have done before,” he said. “There is nothing new, but we have informed the littoral states to verify this claim.”

The Malaysian Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 with 239 people aboard, most of them Chinese, while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

In Beijing, relatives of the passengers complained that they were being told to vacate their hotel by 6 p.m. Friday, a day after Malaysia Airlines asked them to move out and wait at home for updates on the search for the plane.

Steve Wang, a spokesman for the relatives, said the timetable was too rushed and that it would be harder than ever to get information from the airline.

“We want to stay here because we don’t believe Malaysia Airlines can provide a platform to communicate,” Wang said as policemen looked on. “Every time … when something big happened, they cannot send the message to all of the next of kin.”

Many of the relatives remaining at the Beijing hotels continue to distrust information being relayed to them by Malaysia Airlines. Some still insist that the plane never crashed and remains intact in some unknown location.

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