Defence Minister David Johnston says until debris is recovered and positively identified as being from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, any information about the search for the missing plane is speculation.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a press conference in Kuala Lumpur late on Monday that based on new analysis by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch and tracking firm Inmarsat, the plane flew along the southern corridor and crashed into the ocean west of Western Australia.
But Senator Johnston said while the British data is all the authorities have to go on, he stressed no debris had yet been recovered from the massive search area in the Indian Ocean.
“The turning point for us, I think, will be when we pull some piece of debris from the surface of the ocean and positively identify it as being part of the aircraft,” he told reporters at the RAAF Pearce air base north of Perth on Tuesday.
“This is a mystery and until we recover and positively identify a piece of debris, everything is virtually speculation.”
He said the search continued to be “fairly urgent” given there’s only some 13 days of life left on the beacon battery that would pinpoint the location of the black box.
Poor weather caused the international effort to be suspended on Tuesday, but searchers could not be put at risk, Senator Johnston said.
“It is a very difficult task. We just have to deal with this location as best we can.”
Air Marshal Mark Binskin said the British data “seems to indicate more surety that it went down in the southern Indian Ocean”.
Air Marshal Binskin said the search wasn’t just like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“We’re still trying to define where the haystack is – that’s just to put it in context,” he said.
He said HMAS Success had been moved south as a safety precaution while the weather was poor.
“But we’re hoping for good weather in the coming days where the search effort will be joined by a number of Chinese ships, we’ll have the Korean P3 (Orions) on line so we’ll have more aircraft, more ships in the area and we’ll start to be able to refine the search,” he said.
He confirmed a new Australian maritime asset, the Ocean Shield, would join the search in coming days.
“The aim for her will be working with specialist equipment on board so that as we further refine the search area, that we might be able to go out and look for the black box,” he said.
Air Marshal Binskin said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had deployed buoys to measure the current in the area and keep “a good handle” on the debris field.
Flight 370 vanished on March 8 just an hour into its journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 239 people, including six Australians and two New Zealanders.
Relatives of passengers and crew were told of Mr Najib’s declaration on the plane’s fate via text message.
Asked about that, Senator Johnston said: “I’m not surprised of anything in regard to this”.
“It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean,” Mr Najib said on Monday night.
He said the flag carrier had spoken to the families of the passengers and crew aboard the jet which disappeared on March 8 on an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The airline, in a statement sent to families, said “we have to assume” the plane was lost.
“Our prayers go out to all the loved ones of the 226 passengers and of our 13 friends and colleagues at this enormously painful time,” it said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the families of those lost will be welcomed to Australia if they wish to visit and the visa fees of the bereaved families would be waived.
Mr Abbott spoke to the Malaysian prime minister on Tuesday morning to offer Australia’s continuing support and cooperation.
Mr Abbott says the search mission has now become one of recovery and investigation.
Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said Malaysia’s announcement moved the operation to a new phase.
Under international conventions Malaysia would control investigations and Australia stood ready to assist, he said.
“Essentially it will be a matter now for the Malaysian government to request what assistance they may need to undertake the investigation,” he said.
Angry relatives of the Chinese passengers aboard MH370 marched to the Malaysian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday to demand more answers about the plane’s fate.
Around 200 family members, some in tears, linked arms and shouted slogans including “The Malaysian government are murderers” and “We want our relatives back”.
Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board. But the absence of firm evidence has fuelled intense speculation and conspiracy theories, and tormented the families of the missing.
Leading theories include a hijacking, pilot sabotage, or a sudden mid-air crisis that incapacitated the flight crew and left the plane to fly on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.
MH370 last made contact over the South China Sea halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam. For reasons unknown, it backtracked over the Malaysian peninsula and then flew on for hours.
The search swung deep into the Indian Ocean last week after initial satellite images depicted large floating objects there. – AAP