BEIJING – China’s satellite research agency said late Wednesday that it had detected three large floating objects near the flight path of the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Saturday.
The announcement by an arm of China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense could prove a breakthrough – or yet another red herring in the frustrating 5-day-old search for the elusive Boeing 777 and the 239 people it carried.
“We cannot be sure it was from the missing flight,” Chinese civil aviation chief Li Jiaxiang told radio reporters today at a legislative meeting in Beijing.
Vietnamese officials said the area had already been “searched thoroughly” in recent days, according to the Associated Press.
In another possible scenario, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. investigators suspect the missing jetliner flew on for four hours once it lost contact with air traffic controllers. The suspicion is based on data from the plane’s engines that are automatically downloaded and transmitted to the ground as part of routine maintenance programs.
Malaysian planes were on their way to examine the floating objects, near where the Gulf of Thailand meets the South China Sea. A spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet said the United States would continue searching in an area of the Strait of Malacca, hundreds of miles to the west.
The unidentified objects are large, each about the size of a basketball court. On its website, the Chinese agency released pictures and described the objects as 43 feet by 59 feet, 46 feet by 62 feet and 79 feet by 72 feet.
The agency also released coordinates of 105.63 east longitude, 6.7 north latitude, roughly on the flight path northeast of Kuala Lumpur over the Gulf of Thailand. The photos were taken at 11 a.m. Sunday, more than 24 hours after Flight 370 disappeared from radar. The agency did not explain the delay.
The announcement came as a veritable armada of ships and planes scoured the waters and jungles of South Asia for signs of debris. At the latest count, there were 42 ships and 39 aircraft searching for the plane. Twelve countries were involved, with Japan, India and Brunei the latest to pitch in.
Frustration was beginning to turn into recrimination and finger-pointing, with Chinese state media suggesting that Malaysia was concealing information and Vietnam suspending its assistance in the search effort.
Malaysian officials defended their handling of the search.
“This is unprecedented what we are going through. Coordinating so many countries together is not something that is easy. We are looking at so many vessels and aircraft, so many countries,” acting Transportation Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said at a stormy televised news conference late Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.
At the news conference, Malaysian military officials attempted to clear up conflicting statements that had angered China and Vietnam. They said the last confirmed contact with the aircraft was at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, about 50 minutes after takeoff, over the Gulf of Thailand.
However, military radar detected an unidentified aircraft about 2:15 a.m. over the Strait of Malacca, on the west side of the Malay peninsula, about 330 miles from the flight path.
“We are not sure whether it is the same aircraft,” Malaysian armed forces chief Gen. Zulkefli Mohamad Zin said.
Nevertheless, the search has been expanded from the Gulf of Thailand to two new areas – the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea – and covers a total of 27,000 square nautical miles, officials said.
Earlier in the day, China and Vietnam lashed out at the Malaysians.
“We’ve decided to temporarily suspend some search-and-rescue activities, pending information from Malaysia,” Vietnam’s deputy transportation minister, Pham Quy Tieu, told reporters. “We’ve asked Malaysian authorities twice, but so far they have not replied to us.”
China’s Communist Party-controlled Global Times assailed the Malaysian government’s conflicting statements in an editorial Wednesday.
“We don’t know which information published by Malaysia is true and which is false, or whether they have released all the information they have so far,” the editorial said. “Is the Malaysian military intentionally hiding something?”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry was only slightly less withering, with spokesman Qin Gang saying at a briefing in Beijing, “Right now there is a lot of information, and it’s pretty chaotic, so up to this point we too have had difficulty confirming whether it is accurate or not.”
Of the 227 passengers aboard the missing plane, 159 were Chinese nationals and many others were ethnic Chinese. China has eight ships involved in the search.
At a hotel in Beijing, family members waited in a conference room, hoping for any nugget of new information.
“My only hope is for my son to be back. That is more important than anything else,” murmured a woman in her 50s, her face red and puffy. She was assisted by two family members as she walked outside the room.