Missing Malaysia Flight MH370: French satellite data backs ‘evidence’ that plane crashed in southern Indian Ocean

Planes and ships were scrambled today to find a pallet and other debris in a remote patch of the southern Indian Ocean

Evidence that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 ended up in the vast, desolate waters of the southern Indian Ocean appears to be mounting – but the quest to find the doomed aircraft itself is still proving tortuously difficult.

French satellite pictures handed to Malaysian authorities on Sunday show possible debris from the missing Boeing 777, photographed in broadly the same area as objects picked up by Australian and Chinese satellites last week.

A plane scouring the search area, about 2,500km south-west of Perth, spotted a wooden pallet and other objects late on Saturday, including what looked like variously coloured straps or belts. However, it was unable to get up close or take photographs, and other aircraft dispatched to the site on Sunday could only see seaweed.

Nonetheless, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, expressed cautious optimism about a possible breakthrough in the 16-day hunt for the plane, which vanished off civilian radar screens with 239 passengers and crew during a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"Obviously we have now had a number of very credible leads, and there is increasing hope - no more than hope - that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft," he said.

An Australian aviation expert, Neil Hansford, said he believed there was a "high likelihood" that the satellite photographs show wreckage from the plane.

A Malaysian statement about the French images gave no details about the number, size or precise whereabouts of the objects, merely describing them - in a reference to one of two broad arcs identified as the plane's likely final location - as "potential objects in the vicinity of the southern corridor". The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, expressed cautious optimism about a possible breakthrough in the 16-day hunt for the plane The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, expressed cautious optimism about a possible breakthrough in the 16-day hunt for the plane

The photos have been relayed to Australia, which is co-ordinating the search which began last Thursday deep in the southern Indian Ocean, after the first grainy images emerged of objects floating in the churning waters.

One large object, photographed by Australian and Chinese satellites, could be an aircraft wing - or a lost shipping container.

Mike Barton, from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said wooden pallets were commonly used in the airline industry, "usually packed into another container which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft". Pallets were, however, also used in shipping, he noted. The agency has requested a cargo manifest from Malaysia Airlines.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 21, 2014 The Australian Maritime Safety Authority map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 21, 2014

The eight aircraft searching on Sunday - which included two Chinese Ilyushin IL-76s and two Japanese P2 Orions - focused on two areas covering 59,000 square kilometres.

A marker buoy was dropped at the site where the pallet was spotted so that its movement could be tracked. The air search is being supported by several ships in the area.

Mr Abbott said of the hunt: "We owe it to the almost  240 people on board the plane. We owe it to their grieving families. We owe it to the governments of the countries concerned to do everything we can to discover as much as we can about the fate of MH370."

Relatives are now enduring a third, agonising week of waiting for news.

Wang Zheng, whose parents, Wang Linshi and Xiong Yunming, were among 153 Chinese passengers, told Associated Press in Beijing: "Biggest of all is the emotional turmoil I've been going through. I can't eat, I can't sleep. I've been dreaming of my parents every day."

Mr Wang, whose parents were among a group of Chinese artists touring Malaysia, last spoke with them on the night of their departure, shortly before they boarded the plane. They were filling out exit cards at the airport, and told him they would call him on their arrival in Beijing.

Like other relatives, he is praying that the possible debris turns out to be a false lead - meaning that his parents could still be alive.

"I will stay here until they give me an answer," he said, speaking at a Beijing hotel where families attend daily briefings. "I am not leaving until I know for certain where my parents are."

The search will resume again tomorrow, but the threat of bad weather still looms, with a cyclone reported to be heading towards the search area at the moment, which will cause difficult conditions with strong winds, though it is expected to lose its strength over the next few days.

Today the Telegraph reported the investigation into how the plane carrying 239 people on 8 March went missing is becoming increasingly centred on the two pilots, following an extensive analysis of data from the plane.

According to senior sources involved in the investigation, the paper reports that authorities remain certain the disappearance of flight MH370 was a result of a "deliberate act" by a "person or persons on board".

Malaysian police have denied reports in the Mail Online that the missing flight's Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah received a two minute phone call from a woman before take-off.

The woman is supposed to have bought a pay-as-you-go phone to make the call with fake ID and the paper claims the discovery raises fears of a possible link between the Captain and terrorist groups who use untraceable SIM cards.

Assistant commissioner Datin Asmawati has called the claims "mere speculations."

He said: "Please be advised that the Royal Malaysia Police take no responsibility over the dissemination of such information which originates from unnamed and unverified sources."

"Secondly the IGP has never issued any public statement that categorically places the MH370 investigation under any act of terrorism," he added.

AMSA said it had refined the search based on the latest clue from the Chinese satellite showing an object that appeared to be 72 feet by 43 feet, when it started its mission today. It said the object's position also fell within yesterday's search area but it had not been sighted.

Yesterday's search was split into two areas within the same proximity covering 22,800 square miles. These areas have been determined by drift modelling, the AMSA said.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein put a message on his Twitter account asking those in churches around the country to offer a "prayer please" for the passengers and crew on Fight 370.

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