By Tom Westbrook and Rozanna Latiff
SYDNEY/KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Investigators searching for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have recommended extending the search by 25,000 sq km (9,650 sq miles), to an area further north in the Indian Ocean, after conceding for the first time they were probably looking in the wrong place.
Flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014 with 239 passengers and crew on board, most of them Chinese, en route to Beijing from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Its whereabouts have become one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries.
The search coordinator, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, issued a report earlier on Tuesday in which it said new evidence from ocean drift modeling and analysis of satellite communications with the aircraft and washed-up debris helped determine the new area.
But Australia, one of three search countries, rejected the recommendation citing a lack of “credible evidence” to extend the search, leaving it unclear whether Chinese and Malaysian search teams would finance a prolonged hunt.
“The report does not give a specific location for the missing aircraft and so we need credible evidence that identifies the specific location of the aircraft to extend the search,” a spokeswoman for Australia’s Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester told Reuters by telephone.
Malaysian transport minister Liow Tiong Lai said it remained to be seen how the investigators’ report could help identify the specific location of the aircraft. He did not comment on funding.
A hunt of the current 120,000 sq km (46,330 sq miles) search area west of Australia is due to be completed in January, with no sign of the missing jet..
The recommendation to extend the search followed a meeting in November between crash investigators, satellite communication and aviation experts including Boeing and government representatives from Malaysia, China and Australia.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not have any details about the search.
“But what I want to stress is that since the MH370 incident, the Chinese government has paid great attention to this, and proactively participated in relevant work,” she told a daily briefing.
“We will continue to maintain close communication with Malaysia, Australia and other parties, and cooperate with them to do their relevant work well.”
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it believed the plane was not in the current search area.
“There is a high degree of confidence that the previously identified underwater area searched to date does not contain the missing aircraft,” it said in its report.
“Given the elimination of this area, the experts identified an area of approximately 25,000 sq km as the area with the highest probability of containing the wreckage of the aircraft.”
The new search area is north of the current one, which has been the focus of the A$200 million ($145 million) effort. It would represent the second time the search has been extended if funding was forthcoming.
Malaysia and Australia have contributed the bulk of search financing. Malaysia holds ultimate responsibility given Malaysia Airlines is registered there, while the aircraft is thought to have crashed west of Australia, placing it in the country’s maritime zone of responsibility.
Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother was on the plane, said it was not clear what authorities were doing to find the new evidence that would satisfy the Australian government demands.
“The families have time and again requested that an international appeal to all nations be made if the three participating states are unable to fully support the extended search,” said Nathan, who heads the next-of-kin support group called Members of Voice 370. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Jonathan Barrett.; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)
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