By Barbara Demick and W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
BEIJING — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Thursday that two objects that could be wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had been seen by satellite off the western coast of Australia.
“New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search … in the south Indian Ocean,” Abbott told Australia’s Parliament in Canberra on Thursday morning. “The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of two objects possibly related to the search.
“I can inform the House that a Royal Australian Air Force Orion has been diverted to attempt to locate the objects,” Abbott said.
He was referring to the Lockheed AP-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop patrol aircraft that carries out submarine hunting, maritime surveillance and other search missions for the Australian military. A version of the aircraft is also used by the U.S. Navy.
Abbott said three more aircraft would be dispatched.
Flight 370 disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew aboard. An international search operation has been focusing on two possible corridors: one heading northwest toward Turkmenistan and the other south toward Australia.
Although Abbott called the information “credible,” he cautioned in his statement that “the task of locating these objects will be extremely difficult and it may turn out that they are not related to the search for Flight MH370.”
Abbott said he had informed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of the development.
Malaysian officials said they had been briefed on the situation.
“At this stage, Australian officials have yet to establish whether these objects are indeed related to the search for MH370,” Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s acting transportation minister, said in a statement.
Abbott’s announcement came after Australia’s maritime authority narrowed the search for the aircraft to about half of the area in the vast corridor of the Indian Ocean, following analysis by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board on the fuel reserves of the aircraft and how far it could have flown.
John Young, general manager of the maritime authority, described the largest of the objects as about 78 feet long and located about 1,500 miles off the coast of Perth, Australia.
“This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now,” Young said at a news conference in Canberra. “But we have to get there, find them, see them, assess them, to know if it is really meaningful or not. They will be really difficult to find and they may not be associated with the aircraft.”
The Australians said that four aircraft were heading to the scene Thursday, including a U.S. P-8 Poseidon.
More than 25 nations have deployed ships, aircraft and satellites in the search-and-rescue operation.
In the last week, both the U.S. and China directed their search efforts to the vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean.
China’s official New China News Agency said Tuesday that naval vessels that were on standby in the Gulf of Thailand were divided into two groups and sent westward. One fleet was headed through the Malacca Strait into waters west of the Andaman Islands, the report said. Another fleet was heading for waters southwest of Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia.
A day earlier, the U.S. Navy pulled its guided-missile destroyer Kidd, with its two search-and-rescue helicopters, out of the effort, opting to rely on a pair of submarine-hunting aircraft from nearby land bases to scour the southern part of the ocean. The Navy did so, it said, because the planes could search larger areas with their advanced surface search radars and sensors, covering up to 15,000 square miles in one nine-hour flight.
dvanced surface search radars and sensors, covering up to 15,000 square miles in one nine-hour flight.
AFP Photo/Eric A. Pastor