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Report of ping raises hope, questions in Malaysia jetliner search

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BEIJING — A Chinese ship has detected a pulse signal that could be related to the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, Chinese state-run media reported Saturday, boosting hopes for finding the vanished jet but raising new questions about how tightly the search effort is being coordinated.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said a Chinese vessel in the Indian Ocean, the Haixun 01, picked up a "pulse signal with a frequency of 37.5 kHz” — the same frequency as emitted by a plane’s flight data recorder. A Chinese journalist aboard the Haixun 01 said in a televised report that the crew had relayed its findings to authorities in Perth, Australia, who are coordinating the search.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the Australian heading the efforts from Perth, said late Saturday there was no confirmation that the pulses were linked to Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people aboard. Search efforts are now concentrated in the Indian Ocean some 1,000 miles northwest of Perth.

PHOTOS: Search for missing Malaysia Airlines jet

"I have been advised that a series of sounds have been detected by a Chinese ship in the search area. The characteristics reported are consistent with the aircraft black box,” he said. “A number of white objects were also sighted on the surface about 90 kilometers from the detection area. However, there is no confirmation at this stage that the signals and the objects are related to the missing aircraft."

Houston added that neither the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Coordination Center nor the nation’s Transport Safety Bureau could verify any connection to Flight 370. He said Australian officials were asking Chinese authorities for further information and that deployment of Australian air force assets to the area was “being considered.”

Australian Defense Minister David Johnston urged caution. "This is not the first time we have had something that has turned out to be very disappointing," he told Australia's ABC News.

With nearly a month of searching having turned up no definitive sign of the missing jet, Malaysia said Saturday it was overhauling the organization of its investigation and vowed to press on with efforts to find the jet.

Weeks of false leads and official briefings with little fresh news have fed frustration among passengers’ families — particularly in China, the flight's destination — and the information vacuum has fueled speculation, rumors and conspiracy theories about the fate of the Boeing 777.

Malaysian authorities have said they believe the disappearance of the jet was the result of a deliberate act by someone on board, but have offered few specifics beyond that.

At a briefing in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein staunchly defended his government’s handling of the probe, rejecting what he called “the extraordinary assertion that Malaysian authorities were somehow complicit in what happened to MH370.”

“These allegations are completely untrue,” he said.

Hussein said the government was forming three groups within the overall investigations team: an “airworthiness” panel to probe issues such as maintenance records and systems; an operations group to look into operations, meteorology and devices such as flight data recorders; and a medical and human factors group to examine issues related to psychology, pathology and survival. An independent “investigator in charge” would also be named, he said.

In addition, Hussein said Malaysia was creating three ministerial-level committees: a next-of-kin committee to provide families with information and support; a technical committee overseeing the investigatory team; and a committee tasked with supervising deployment of assets in the search.

While Malaysia remains officially in charge of the investigation, Australia, the U.S., China, Britain and France are also “accredited” members in the effort.

Two ships — one British, one Australian — equipped with devices able to detect transmissions from a plane’s flight data recorder began searching underwater Friday along a 150-mile track where investigators believe it’s most likely the plane entered the water, Australian authorities said. One of the devices was lent by the U.S. military.

But battery life on the beacon was expected to run out within days, and the search area remains vast because so little is known about the plane’s exact movements in its final hours of flight.

On Saturday, Australian officials coordinating operations from Perth said 10 military planes, three civilian jets and 11 ships were participating in the search over an area of about 84,000 square miles.

It was not immediately clear whether China’s patrol ship Haixun 01 was counted among those 11 ships, and Australian search coordinators have made no mention that any Chinese vessel participating in the search was equipped with a black-box pinger detector. Photos carried by Chinese press showed Chinese searchers in a small vessel lowered from the Haixun using a handheld commercial pinger detector.

A spokesman for the command center in Perth, reached by phone late Saturday, would not discuss why Australian officials had made no mention that a Chinese ship also carried a pinger detector.

Chinese state-run media said Friday that Haixun 01 was in “a new search area north of a 1.15-million-square-kilometer area earlier designated by Australia.” The pings the Haixun 01 detected Saturday were found around 25 degrees south latitude and 101 degrees east longitude and were detected once at 3:57 p.m. local time and again around 4:30 p.m., according to the reporter aboard the Haixun.

The reporter said a pulse signal was also detected Friday afternoon for 15 minutes but there were other ships in the area and searchers were concerned that the other vessels may have been causing interference, so the crew sought to replicate their findings on Saturday.

The distance between the Haixun 01 and the British and Australian vessels searching along the 150-mile track was not clear Saturday evening.

Meanwhile, a Chinese air force plane flying out of Perth also reported spotting a number of “white floating objects” in the search area Saturday and photographed them, but there was no further detail about what they were.

 

julie.makinen@latimes.com

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