The Australian-led search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is officially over after the governments of Australia, Malaysia and China ignored the recommendations of international experts and refused to extend it into a new 25,000 sq, km search area.
Government ministers from the three nations jointly announced Wednesday that the last search vessel had left the underwater search area despite 11th-hour calls for the sweep to continue.
The decision was immediately attacked as irresponsible and a betrayal by a support group for families of victims of the tragedy.
While the announcement left open the possibility the search could be resumed, it failed to specify under what circumstances this could happen.
The remaining search ship, the Fugro Equator, will now return to Fremantle to demobilise before heading back to Singapore.
Before it left, the ship managed to conduct a limited search of the new area using an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with sonar.
A joint statement released by Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester noted the plane — which went missing with 239 people on board in March, 2014 — had not been located “despite every effort and using the best science available”. Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai and his Chinese counterpart, Li Xiaopeng, were also signatories to the statement.
“The decision to suspend the underwater search has not been taken lightly nor without sadness,’’ it said. “ It is consistent with decisions made by our three countries in the July 2016 Ministerial Tripartite meeting in Putrajaya Malaysia.
“Whilst combined scientific studies have continued to refine areas of probability, to date no new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft. ‘’
The Ministers paid homage to the commitment and dedication shown by the hundreds of people involved in the Australian Transport Safety Bureau-led search and noted it was an unprecedented challenge
“Their tireless work has continued to improve our knowledge of the search area and has been critical in our efforts to locate the aircraft,’’ they said.
They also acknowledged the enormous loss felt by the families.
“We remain hopeful that new information will come to light and that at some point in the future the aircraft will be located,’’ they said.
The decision leaves unsolved the mystery of what happened to the Boeing 777 — which disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing — and any lessons from its mysterious disappearance unlearned.
It also ignores the call of global commentators and the recommendation of a high-powered team of international experts that the search should continue into a 25,000 sq. km zone north of the original search area.
The experts identified the site as a potential site for the aircraft debris after reviewing critical new ocean drift data made possible by the discovery of wreckage from the plane.
They recommended the search continue to exhaust the remaining high probability crash site options.
The families of MH370 victims and Australian investigators also wanted to extend the search but the Ministers indicated the new information was not precise enough to warrant the additional $40 to $50m in funding.
Family support group Voice370 slammed the decision and said a proposed tripartite meeting to work out what to do out about the search appeared to have been a smokescreen.
“Expecting to determine the “precise location of the aircraft” before continuing the search is at best an erroneous expectation and at worst a clever formulation to bury the search, ‘’ the group said. “Why would you need to search if you already knew the precise location of the aircraft?
“In our view, extending the search to the new area defined by the experts is an inescapable duty owed to the flying public in the interest of aviation safety’’.
Voice370 said stopping at this stage was nothing short of irresponsible and betrayed a shocking lack of faith in the data, tools and recommendation of an array of experts assembled by authorities.
“We appeal to Malaysia, China and Australia to reconsider the decision to suspend the search,’’ it said.
Chester is due to hold a media conference about the decision Wednesday morning but a spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment Tuesday night.