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Australia on the defensive, offers hope of new MH370 hunt

Melbourne (AFP) -- Australia's transport minister Wednesday defended the suspension of the undersea search for MH370, after relatives of passengers slammed the decision, and added that it could resume if "credible new evidence" emerges.

Australia, Malaysia and China -- where most of the 239 on board the missing Malaysia Airlines jet lived -- on Tuesday pulled the plug on the massive operation in the southern Indian Ocean almost three years since the plane vanished on March 8, 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Transport Minister Darren Chester said the investigation's high cost -- about Aus$200 million (US$150 million) -- was not a factor in the decision. It came after the search of the remote 120,000 square-kilometre zone (46,000 square miles) was completed without success.

"I don't rule out a future underwater search by any stretch," Chester told reporters in Melbourne, stressing that the hunt was "not a closed book".

But he added, "No-one is coming to me as minister and saying 'We know where MH370 is'.

"We don't want to provide false hope to the families and friends. We need to have credible new evidence leading to a specific location before we would be reasonably considering future search efforts."

Chester said a future hunt would be primarily a matter for the Malaysian government.

"But given the close relationship we have had with Malaysia during this project, I would suspect further conversations would occur between Australia, Malaysia and China at the time."

Chester defended the choice of the search zone, which was questioned after analysis by Australian and international experts released in December concluded MH370 was not in that area and might be further north.

"We need to understand the very limited amount of actual data our experts were dealing with... it has been the edge of science and technological endeavour in terms of pursuing this search effort," he said.

"In future, whether through better analysis of data, if new technology becomes available or through improved equipment or something of that nature, we may have a breakthrough."

Call to extend hunt

The minister said analysis of satellite imagery and the drifting of plane debris in the ocean would continue into February while Australia remained open to help Malaysia, including the examination of other aircraft fragments that may be found.

Investigators have so far confirmed that three bits of debris washed up and recovered on western Indian Ocean shorelines came from MH370.

Other items recovered mostly on western Indian Ocean shorelines have been identified as likely, though not definitely, from MH370.

Relatives of passengers on Tuesday criticised the governments' decision, with some saying they were not convinced their missing loved ones were dead.

They called on investigators to extend the hunt into the more more northern 25,000 square kilometre area identified by experts as having the highest probability of containing wreckage.

Family members also remain deeply suspicious of Malaysia's handling of the disappearance -- which has become one of aviation's great mysteries -- saying the government and airline have routinely stonewalled requests for more information, a charge they deny.

Many next-of-kin have been unhappy about the lack of a coordinated search in the western Indian Ocean and along the African coast, with some of them travelling to Madagascar late last year to comb beaches in search for clues about the lost plane.


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