PERTH: A US Navy “black box” detector made its much-anticipated debut in the oceanic hunt for flight MH370 on Friday but Australia’s search chief warned it was crunch time with the box’s signal set to expire soon.
As the extensive search wore on, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he believed the country’s long-ruling regime was concealing information on the crisis, saying “the government knows more than us.”
The Australian naval vessel Ocean Shield arrived with a “towed pinger locator” capable of homing in on signals from the black box, as 14 planes scoured the remote Indian Ocean search area for signs of a crash site.
The plane disappeared March 8, and Australian authorities coordinating the search have rushed the device into place with the black box’s roughly 30-day location signal set to expire.
Angus Houston, Australia’s former military chief and now coordinator of the eight-nation search, said “we’re now getting pretty close to the time when it might expire.”
The plane went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, confounding aviation experts and sparking criticism of Malaysian authorities who have been unable to explain how the jumbo jet vanished.
– Undersea search commences –
Anwar said he was “baffled” by the Malaysian military’s failure despite detecting the plane crossing back over the country’s airspace following its mysterious detour.
“Unfortunately the manner in which this was handled after the first few days was clearly suspect,” Anwar said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
“Clearly information critical to our understanding is deemed missing. I believe the government knows more than us,” he added, without elaborating.
Malaysian authorities believe satellite data indicates MH370 crashed in the Indian Ocean, far off western Australia.
Ocean Shield, which also bore an underwater drone vehicle capable of mapping the seafloor, joined in a search with the British navy’s hydrographic ship HMS Echo, which on Thursday began scanning for black box transmissions.
But despite days of exhaustively scouring the sea’s surface with planes and ships, no debris has been found to prove MH370 went down in the area, let alone pinpoint a crash site.
Australian Commodore Peter Leavy admitted the undersea search was a shot in the dark for hopes that a ping can be picked up, adding that the two ships would need to move at excruciatingly slow speeds in the deep waters to improve the chances.
“There has not been any change in the search,” he said.
“No hard evidence has been found to date so we have made the decision to search a sub-surface area on which the analysis has predicted MH370 is likely to have flown.”
The two ships were to scan inward on a single 240-kilometre (150-mile) “track” of ocean, converging on each other.
– Malaysia ‘wasted time’ –
Anwar, who recently had his acquittal on sodomy charges overturned in what he claims is a political smear by the government, said a “sophisticated” radar system that he authorised as finance minister in 1994 should have led to prompt military action.
The decision has been criticised for losing valuable time tracking MH370. It took Malaysia one week to confirm the radar blip was MH370 and subsequently reorient a huge search away from its initial focus in the South China Sea.
Anwar said Malaysia should have moved quickly to save other countries scouring “a place that they know cannot be the site of the plane”.
A Malaysian government spokesman responded, saying: “Anwar has made numerous unfounded allegations criticising Malaysia.”
“Instead of trying to exploit the MH370 tragedy to score political points, it would be constructive if he could support the government as it coordinates the multinational search operation for MH370.”
Malaysia’s government has a poor record on transparency, typically sweeping recurring corruption scandals and other embarrassments under the rug, but Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein insisted this week it was “not hiding anything” on MH370.
Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said Wednesday an investigation of all 227 passengers and 12 crew into a possible hijack or sabotage plot had drawn a blank so far, and warned authorities may never know what happened.
Malaysia has faced impassioned accusations from distraught relatives of the 153 Chinese nationals on the plane, with many alleging a cover-up and calling Malaysian authorities “murderers.”
China’s government has also expressed its displeasure, and ties faced further strain over the kidnapping Wednesday of a Chinese tourist from a Malaysian diving resort by unidentified gunmen.