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Search efforts narrow for MH370

Australia to lead search at southern Indian Ocean; Malaysia Airlines and its chief come under fire

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After scouring more than two million square nautical miles for MH370 since it disappeared 18 days ago, the search operations for the missing aircraft with 239 passengers and crew has now been narrowed to the southern tip of the freezing southern Indian Ocean - PHOTO: REUTERS

[SINGAPORE] After scouring more than two million square nautical miles for MH370 since it disappeared 18 days ago, the search operations for the missing aircraft with 239 passengers and crew has now been narrowed to the southern tip of the freezing southern Indian Ocean.

With that, the operations in the northern corridor and the northern part of the southern corridor close to Indonesia have been called off, said Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

On Monday night, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had announced that the flight had ended in the south Indian ocean.

Australia will now take the lead as the search area, this time spanning some 470,000 square nautical miles near the south-west coast of Australia, falls under its quadrant. The area may be smaller but as Mr Hishammuddin admits, it has its fair share of challenges both technical and logistical.

The latest move is based on recent data analysis by British satellite company Inmarsat and UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). Based on that very data, Mr Najib, in a rushed press briefing on Monday night, said flight MH370 "ended" in the southern Indian ocean with no survivors.

Yesterday, the Malaysian government and grim-faced officials provided their regular daily updates as they faced a torrent of criticism and anger from grief-stricken and disbelieving relatives of Chinese passengers aboard the missing jet.

"My only problem is providing the answers to the questions they (families) really want - where are their loved ones and where is flight MH370.

"Until we can find debris, and confirm that the debris is from MH370, it is very difficult for me to give the family closure," said Mr Hishammuddin, who also provided the media with technical details on Inmarsat's refined analysis - the only clear data so far on the jet's possible final position.

Malaysia Airlines was not spared the anger. The Chinese media carried photographs of angry protesters flashing banners at the Malaysian embassy in Beijing that read: "Malaysia Airlines! You owe us an explanation."

The man at the helm of the beleaguered airline, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, also came under fire over the impersonal text message informing relatives that their loved ones had not survived.

He clarified that "wherever humanly possible", the airline informed relatives in person or by telephone, while SMS was only a last resort to fully ensure that nearly 1,000 family members heard the news first before the world did.

At a session with the media, Mr Ahmad Jauhari was also confronted with the question of whether he would quit in the face of harsh criticism and the tragedy involving the national carrier.

To that, the man whose three-year term comes to an end this September, replied: "Will I resign? It's a personal decision that we will take later." Career-related decisions may be the last thing on the mind of the straight-talking 59-year-old power industry veteran who was already facing a Herculean task steering the airline back to profitability after three consecutive years of losses.

Heightened competition from players such as AirAsia, fierce fare war and sliding yields in the industry have led to waning appetite for the airline's shares among investors.

Yesterday, the counter finished at its lowest ebb of 23 sen, down 65 per cent since Mr Ahmad Jauhari took the top spot at the carrier. For some analysts, the call, be it on Malaysia Airlines' financial performance or Mr Ahmad Jauhari's scorecard, is one they would rather hold out a little longer. "We are going dark on MAS for the time being as a manner of respect," said Mohshin Aziz, an aviation analyst with Maybank Investment Bank.