Satellite images on a Chinese government website show suspected debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner floating off the southern tip of Vietnam, near the plane’s original flight path, China’s state news agency reported last night.
The revelation could provide searchers with a focus that has eluded them since the plane disappeared with 239 people aboard early Saturday.
The Xinhua News Agency report said the images from around 11am on Sunday appear to show “three suspected floating objects” of varying sizes, the largest about 24 metres (79 feet) by 22 metres (72 feet).
The report includes co-ordinates of a location in the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam and east of Malaysia. The images originally were posted on a national defence technology website.
No other governments have confirmed the report, which did not say when Chinese officials became aware of the images and associated them with the missing plane.
The search for the plane, which left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing before disappearing early Saturday, has encompassed 35,800 square miles (92,600 square kilometres) of Southeast Asia and on Wednesday expanded toward India.
Two-thirds of the passengers on the flight were Chinese, and the Chinese government has put increasing pressure on Malaysian officials to solve the mystery of the plane’s disappearance.
Also, it was revealed that the last message from the cockpit of the missing flight was routine. “All right, good night,” was the sign-off transmitted to air traffic controllers five days ago.
Then the Boeing 777 vanished as it cruised over the South China Sea toward Vietnam, and nothing has been seen or heard of the jetliner since. Those final words were picked up by controllers and relayed in Beijing to anguished relatives of some of the people aboard Flight MH370.
The new Chinese reports of the satellite images came after several days of sometimes confusing and conflicting statements from Malaysian officials.
Earlier yesterday, the Malaysian military officially disclosed why it was searching on both sides of country:
A review of military radar records showed what might have been the plane turning back and crossing westward into the Strait of Malacca.
That would conflict with the latest images on the Chinese website.
For now, authorities said the international search effort would stay focused on the South China Sea and the strait leading toward the Andaman Sea. Chinese impatience has grown. “There’s too much information and confusion right now.
“It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing. “We will not give it up as long as there’s still a shred of hope.”
“We have nothing to hide,” said Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein. “There is only confusion if you want to see confusion.”
Flight MH370 disappeared from civilian radar screens at 1:30am on Saturday at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,660 metres) above the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and southern Vietnam.
It sent no distress signals or any indication it was experiencing problems.
The amount of time needed to find aircraft that go down over the ocean can vary widely. Planes that crash into relatively shallow areas, like the waters off Vietnam where the Malaysian jet is missing, are far easier to locate and recover than those that plunge deep into undersea canyons or mountain ranges.
By contrast, much of the Gulf of Thailand is less than 300 feet (91 metres) deep.
The Malaysian government said it had asked India to join in the search near the Andaman Sea, suggesting the jetliner might have reached those waters after crossing into the Strait of Malacca, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the flight’s last-known coordinates.
Malaysian officials met in Beijing with several hundred Chinese relatives of passengers to explain the search and investigation, and to relay the last transmission that Malaysian air traffic controllers received before the plane entered Vietnamese airspace, according to a participant in the meeting.