Kuala Lumpur - 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 Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday.
The revelation could provide searchers with a focus that has eluded them since the plane disappeared with 239 people aboard just hours after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on Saturday. Since then, the search has covered more than 90 000 square kilometres, first east and then west of Malaysia and even expanded toward India on Wednesday.
The Chinese sighting, if confirmed, would be closer to where the frantic hunt started.
The Xinhua report said the images from around 11am on Sunday appear to show “three suspected floating objects” of varying sizes in a 20km radius, the largest about 24m by 22m.
The images originally were posted on the website of China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
That site reports co-ordinates of a location in the sea off the southern tip of Vietnam and east of Malaysia. The co-ordinates are similar to those mentioned on Sunday by the head of China's Civil Aviation Administration, Li Jiaxiang.
“Suspected debris has been seen in the area of longitude 103.29 degrees east and latitude 6.42 degrees north,” Li said on Sunday, confirming that Chinese search and rescue teams had been sent to the area.
With the passage of time since the satellite images were taken, it is far from certain that whatever they show would be in the same location now.
No other governments have confirmed the Xinhua report, which did not say when Chinese officials became aware of the images and associated them with the missing plane.
Two-thirds of the passengers on the flight were Chinese, and the Chinese government has put increasing pressure on Malaysian officials to find solve the mystery of the plane's disappearance.
Malaysia's civil aviation chief, Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said Malaysia had not been officially informed by China about the images, which he said he was learning about from the news.
He said if Beijing informs them of the co-ordinates, Malaysia will dispatch vessels and planes immediately.
“If we get confirmation, we will send something,” he told The Associated Press early on Thursday.
Until then, he urged caution. “There have been lots of reports of suspected debris.”
On Wednesday, it was revealed that the last message from the cockpit of the missing flight was routine. “Alright, good night,” was the signoff 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 on Wednesday, 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 000m) 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 90m 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, 400km 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.
Aviation officials in Vietnam said they never heard from the plane.
Its sudden disappearance led to initial speculation of a catastrophic incident that caused it to disintegrate. Another possibility is that it continued to fly despite a failure of its electrical systems, which could have knocked out communications, including transponders that enable the plane to be identified by commercial radar.
Authorities have not ruled out any possible cause, including mechanical failure, pilot error, sabotage and terrorism, and they are waiting to find any wreckage or debris to determine what went wrong.
Two US Federal Aviation Administration technical experts and a regional representative are in Kuala Lumpur as part of an NTSB team supporting the investigation. Experts in air traffic control and radar are providing technical help, the board said.
Hishammuddin described the multinational search as unprecedented. Forty-three ships and 39 aircraft from at least eight nations were scouring an area to the east and west of Peninsular Malaysia.
“It's not something that is easy. We are looking at so many vessels and aircraft, so many countries to co-ordinate, and a vast area for us to search,” he told a news conference. “But we will never give up. This we owe to the families of those on board.”
Confusion over whether the plane had been seen flying west prompted speculation that different arms of the government might have different opinions about its location, or even that authorities were holding back information.
Earlier in the week, Malaysia's head of civil aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, was asked why the Strait of Malacca was being searched and replied, “There are things I can tell you, and things I can’t”, suggesting that the government wasn't being completely transparent.
If all those on board are confirmed dead, it would be the deadliest commercial air accident in 10 years.
Choi Tat Sang, a 74-year-old Malaysian, said his family is still holding out hope that the plane and all on board are safe. His 45-year-old daughter-in-law, Goh Sock Lay, was the chief flight attendant. Her 14-year-old daughter, an only child, has been crying every day since the plane's disappearance.
“We are heartbroken. We are continuing to pray for her safety and for everyone on the flight,” he said. - Sapa-AP