PERTH, Australia (AFP) ―Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday there was no time limit on the search for MH370 and that the world deserved to know what happened, as a ship equipped to locate the “black box” prepared to set sail.
The hunt for physical evidence that the Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 people crashed in the Indian Ocean more than three weeks ago has so far proved fruitless despite a massive operation involving seven countries.
Hopes raised by sightings of debris have repeatedly been crushed as the objects turned out to be random sea junk such as fishing gear.
Aircraft spotted more items on Sunday, with several retrieved by Australia’s HMAS Success and China’s Haixun 01, but the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said: “Nothing has yet been verified as being from MH370.”
Experts warn that surface debris must be found first to narrow down the search zone for the U.S.-supplied black box detector to be effective.
As the search resumed Monday across an expanse of ocean the size of Norway, Abbott said the hunt would continue as long as necessary to provide answers for frustrated relatives of those on board.
“I‘m certainly not putting a time limit on it ... we can keep searching for quite some time to come. The intensity of our search and the magnitude of our search is increasing not decreasing,” he told reporters at the Perth military base coordinating the operation.
“We owe it to the families, we owe it to everyone that travels by air, we owe it to the anxious governments of the countries who had people on that aircraft. We owe it to the wider world which has been transfixed by this mystery for three weeks now.”
The Australian vessel Ocean Shield, fitted with a device known as a towed pinger locator and an autonomous underwater vehicle that can comb the seabed using electronic sensors, was to leave Perth on Monday.
But Capt. Mark Matthews from the U.S. Navy said the crash site must first be narrowed down to allow any pings from the recorder to be located.
“It is critical that we find that surface debris so we can reduce the area that we’d need to conduct an underwater search in,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“Right now the search area is basically the size of the Indian Ocean, which would take an untenable amount of time to search.”
With MH370 vanishing on March 8 and a black box usually giving off signals for 30 days there are fears it could already be too late with Ocean Shield taking up to three days to get to the area. However, Matthews said the pinger could last up to 15 days longer than that.
Australian navy Commodore Peter Leavy, the commander of the military arm of the search, said the focus Monday was to find debris and confirm it was from the plane, then work backwards to a possible crash site.
About two-thirds of those on board the plane were Chinese and many of their families have been highly critical of the Malaysian response, and accused authorities of withholding information.
Malaysia believes the flight was deliberately redirected by someone on board, but nothing else is known.
Many relatives are particularly incensed at Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s March 24 announcement, based on analysis of satellite and other data, that the plane had been lost at sea.
But Abbott backed the call made by his counterpart.
“That’s the absolutely overwhelming wave of evidence and I think that Prime Minister Najib Razak was perfectly entitled to come to that conclusion and I think once that conclusion had been arrived at, it was his duty to make that conclusion public,” he said.
Monday‘s search across an expanse of the southern Indian Ocean saw 10 planes taking to the skies from Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, South Korea and the US.
Ten ships are also scouring the desolate seas 1,850 kilometers west of Perth for clues -- seven from China, two from Australia and a merchant vessel.
AMSA warned that “some parts of the search area will experience low cloud and rain throughout the day.”
While Malaysia remains in charge of the search operation under international protocols, Australia has assumed increasing responsibility with retired air chief marshal Angus Houston appointed to head a new joint agency centre in Perth.
His job involves coordinating diplomatic contacts between search participants and ensuring families get all the information and help they need.