Australia says suspected plane debris may have sunk

Reuters

* Aircraft return to area near where objects spotted by satellite

* Govts studying more satellite images to refine search

* Weather improved from Thursday, still visibility issues

* No certainty objects from missing MH370, but best lead yet (Adds Malaysia minister comments, details)

By Matt Siegel and A. Ananthalakshmi

PERTH, Australia/KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 (Reuters) - The international team hunting Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the remote southern Indian Ocean failed to turn up anything on Friday, and Australia's deputy prime minister said the suspected debris may have sunk.

Aircraft and ships have also renewed a search in the Andaman Sea between India and Thailand, going over areas that have already been exhaustively swept to find some clue to unlock one of the biggest mysteries in modern aviation.

The Boeing 777 went missing almost two weeks ago off the Malaysian coast with 239 people aboard. There has been no confirmed sign of wreckage but two objects seen floating deep south in the Indian Ocean were considered a credible lead and set off a huge hunt on Thursday.

Australian authorities said the first aircraft to sweep treacherous seas on Friday about 2,500 km (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth was on its way back to base without spotting the objects picked out by satellite images five days ago.

"Something that was floating on the sea that long ago may no longer be floating," Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told reporters in Perth. "It may have slipped to the bottom."

But the search was continuing and Australian, New Zealand and U.S. aircraft would be joined by Chinese and Japanese planes over the weekend.

"It's about the most inaccessible spot that you can imagine on the face of the Earth, but if there is anything down there, we will find it," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Papua New Guinea, where he is on a visit.

"Now it could just be a container that's fallen off a ship. We just don't know, but we owe it to the families and the friends and the loved ones to do everything we can to try to resolve what is as yet an extraordinary riddle."

India said it was sending two aircraft, a Poseidon P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and a C-130 Hercules transporter, to join the hunt in the southern Indian Ocean. It is also sending another P-8I and four warships to search in the Andaman Sea, where the plane was last seen on military radar on March 8.

In New Delhi, officials said the search in areas around the Andaman island chain was not at the request of Malaysian authorities coordinating the global search for the airliner.

"All the navies of the world have SAR regions," said Capt. D.K. Sharma, an Indian navy spokesman, referring to search and rescue regions. "So we're doing it at our own behest."

Investigators suspect Flight MH370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing shortly after midnight on March 8, was deliberately diverted thousands of miles from its scheduled path. They say they are focusing on hijacking or sabotage but have not ruled out technical problems.

The search for the plane also continues in other regions, including a wide arc sweeping northward from Laos to Kazakhstan.

In the Indian Ocean, three Australian and two Japanese P-3 Orions joined a high-tech U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon and a civilian Bombardier Global Express jet to search the 23,000 square km (8,900 sq mile) zone, Australian and Malaysian authorities said.

A Norwegian merchant ship, the Hoegh St. Petersburg, was diverted to the area on Thursday and another vessel would arrive later on Friday.

An Australian navy ship was expected to arrive in the search area on Saturday and Britain's HMS Echo, a multi-purpose ocean survey vessel, was also heading to the region, Malaysia said.

China's icebreaker for Antarctic research, Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, will set off from Perth to search the area, Chinese state news agency Xinhua cited maritime authorities as saying. Up to five more Chinese ships, with three ship-borne helicopters, were steaming towards the search zone from across the Indian Ocean.

Australian authorities said they had not asked for the ships to search the area. About two-thirds of the missing plane's passengers were Chinese nationals.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that searchers were facing a "long haul" but were conscious that the clock was ticking. The plane's "black box" voice and data recorder only transmits an electronic signal for about 30 days before its battery dies, after which it will be far more difficult to locate.

It took investigators two years to find the black box from a Air France jetliner that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on a stormy night in June 2009.

"If we do not find it within the 30 days, it brings in other issues of how to locate it - as the French airline had to take two years. That comes into a different realm of search and rescue," Hishammuddin said.

STUDYING SATELLITES

There have been many false leads and no confirmed wreckage found from Flight MH370 since it vanished off Malaysia's east coast less than an hour after taking off.

There has also been criticism of the search operation and investigation, as more than two dozen countries scramble to overcome logistical and diplomatic hurdles.

Investigators piecing together patchy data from military radar and satellites believe that, minutes after its identifying transponder was switched off as it crossed the Gulf of Thailand, the plane turned sharply west, re-crossing the Malay Peninsula and following an established route towards India.

What happened next is unclear, but faint electronic "pings" picked up by one commercial satellite suggest the aircraft flew on for at least six hours.

A source with direct knowledge of the situation said that information gleaned from the pings had been passed to investigators within a few days, but it took Malaysia more than a week to narrow the search area to two large arcs - one reaching south to near where the potential debris was spotted, and a second crossing to the north into China and central Asia.

(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney, Naomi Tajitsu in Wellington, A. Ananthalakshmi, Anuradha Raghu and Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur, Neil Darby in Perth, Byron Kaye in Canberra, Mark Hosenball and Andrea Shalal in Washington, Nicholas Vinocur in Paris, Paul Sandle in London,; Frank Jack Daniel and Sruthi Gottipati in New Delhi; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Stuart Grudgings, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

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