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Sub Search for Plane to Last a Week    04/19 09:33

   PERTH, Australia (AP) -- A robotic submarine looking for the missing 
Malaysia Airlines jet is expected to finish searching a patch of the Indian 
Ocean seabed within a week after so far coming up empty, and the search area 
may be expanded after that, officials said Saturday.

   As the hunt for Flight 370 hit the six-week mark, the Bluefin 21 unmanned 
sub began its seventh trip into the depths off the coast of western Australia. 
Its search area forms a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) circle around the location of 
an underwater signal that was believed to have come from the aircraft's black 
boxes before their batteries died. The sonar scan of the seafloor in that area 
is expected to be completed in five to seven days, the search center said in an 
email to The Associated Press.

   The U.S. Navy sub has covered around 133 square kilometers (51 square miles) 
since it began diving into the depths on Monday. The latest data are being 
analyzed, but nothing has yet been identified.

   Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala 
Lumpur that the weekend search is crucial.

   "The narrowing of the search for today and tomorrow is at a very critical 
juncture, so I appeal to everybody around the world to pray and pray hard that 
we find something to work on over the next couple of days," he said.

   But he added that there were no plans to give up once the Bluefin concludes 
its work. Instead, he said the scope of the search may be broadened or other 
assets may be used.

   "The search will always continue," he said. "It is just a matter of 
approach. All efforts will be intensified for the next few days with regards to 
the underwater search."

   Meanwhile on Saturday, up to 11 aircraft and 12 ships continued to scan the 
ocean surface for debris from the Boeing 777 that disappeared March 8 en route 
from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

   Radar and satellite data show the plane mysteriously veered far off course 
for unknown reasons and would have run out of fuel in the remote section of the 
southern Indian Ocean where the search has been focused. Not one piece of 
debris has been recovered since the massive hunt began.

   The tiresome search, which continues to raise more questions than answers, 
has tormented the families whose loved ones were aboard Flight 370. About 
two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese.

   On Friday, around three dozen Chinese relatives held a prayer meeting in 
Beijing for their missing spouses. Many sobbed heavily as candles burned on a 
table in the shape of a heart with "MH370" in the middle. A banner behind them 
read in Chinese: "Husband, wife, come home soon."

   There have been numerous leads throughout the painstaking hunt, but all have 
turned out to be false. The latest hope involved an oil slick found near the 
underwater search area, but analysis of a sample taken from the site found it 
was not connected to the plane.

   The most promising development came when four underwater signals were 
detected April 5 and 8. The sounds were consistent with pings that would have 
been emanating from the flight data and cockpit recorders' beacons before their 
batteries died.

   The underwater operation is being complicated by the depth of the largely 
unexplored silt-covered sea floor. The U.S. Navy's unmanned submarine has gone 
beyond its recommended limit of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet), according to the 
U.S. 7th Fleet. That could risk the equipment, but it is being closely 
monitored.

   The search coordination center has said the hunt for floating debris on the 
surface will continue at least into next week, even though the head of the 
search effort, Angus Houston, had earlier said it was expected to end sooner.

   On Saturday, the visual surface search was to cover an estimated 50,200 
square kilometers (19,382 square miles) of sea.


(KA)


 
 
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