Malaysia's government on Thursday officially declared the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing last March, an accident.
The official declaration by the country's Department of Civil Aviation should clear the way for the compensation process to proceed for families of the 239 passengers and crew on board, now also officially presumed dead.
"Without in any way intending to diminish the feelings of the families, it is hoped that this declaration will enable the families to obtain the assistance they need, in particular through the compensation process," Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the civil aviation department, said in the statement.
No trace of the plane, missing since March 8, has been found. But in the statement the government sought to assure "the families of the passengers and crew that the search for MH370 remains a priority."
The chief coordinator of the Australian-led search operation said several months ago that it may take a few more months to finish searching the area where the plane is suspected of going down.
The flight departed Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. For many months, search teams from nearly a dozen countries that included the United States, China and Australia have scoured the Gulf of Thailand and Indian Ocean in search of the missing plane.
Search teams have combed nearly 1.8 million square miles of ocean and believe the flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean.
“Based on the same data, we have concluded that the aircraft exhausted its fuel over a defined area of the southern Indian Ocean, and that the aircraft is located on the sea floor close to that defined area,” Abdul Rahman said in a statement.
In July, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine. And another Malaysia-based plane, AirAsia 8501, crashed into the Java Sea in December with 162 people aboard.
Abdul Rahman emphasized in his statement Thursday that the declaration of the plane’s disappearance as an accident is “by no means the end.”
“We will forge ahead with the cooperation and assistance” from other countries, he said in his statement. “MH370, its passengers and its crew will always be remembered and honored.”
Thirteen nationalities were represented among the 239 people aboard Flight 370, but the majority -- 154 -- were Chinese citizens. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday said “the Chinese government expresses its deep sorrow for the misery of those on board, and offers its profound sympathies and sincere condolences to their families.”
Hua said China had “deep appreciation and gratitude” for the multinational efforts that have gone into the search for the Boeing 777. And she noted that China had mobilized “massive resources” in the search for the aircraft, including 21 satellites, 19 vessels, 13 aircraft and over 2,500 personnel.
The Australia-based Joint Agency Coordination Center said in an update on Wednesday that nearly 6,500 square miles of ocean floor have been searched, or about 30% of the “priority search area.”
Assuming no other significant delays with vessels or equipment or because of the weather, the current underwater search area may be largely completed by about May, the agency said.
The priority search area is a remote zone where ocean depths can reach up to 3.7 miles, Malaysian officials said.
In an indication of how sensitive the search for Flight 370 remains, Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation called off a news conference Thursday afternoon “because of the presence of the next of kin,” Malaysia’s Star newspaper reported.
In a statement, the Department of Civil Aviation said the briefing was for the media only and that separate arrangements had been made to transmit information to passengers’ families.
Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.