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Malaysian police say Flight 370 probe may be lengthy, might not determine why plane vanished

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    Malaysia's civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, left, is speaks during a press conference after a close door meeting with Chinese relatives of the passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 at a hotel in Bangi, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. The plane disappeared March 8 on a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur after its transponders, which make the plane visible to commercial radar, were shut off. A multinational team of aircraft and ships are searching the southern Indian Ocean for the plane, but have yet to find any sign of the Boeing 777. (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)

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    Japan Coast Guard's Gulfstream V, foreground, and two Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's P-3 Orions sit on the tarmac at RAAF Base Peace in Perth, Australia, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Ten planes and nine ships resume the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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    In this Monday, March 31, 2014 photo, Royal New Zealand Air Force flight Sgt. Chris Poole on board a P-3 Orion, flicks switches on an instrument panel in the cockpit during an operation to find missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Malaysia's national police chief has warned that the investigation into what happened to the plane may take a long time and may never determine the cause of the tragedy. Khalid Abu Bakar said Wednesday that the criminal investigation is still focused on four areas — hijacking, sabotage and personal or psychological problems of those on board the plane. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool)

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    In this Monday, March 31, 2014 photo, a shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion aircraft is seen on low cloud cover while it searches for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Malaysia's national police chief has warned that the investigation into what happened to the plane may take a long time and may never determine the cause of the tragedy. Khalid Abu Bakar said Wednesday, April 2, that the criminal investigation is still focused on four areas — hijacking, sabotage and personal or psychologica problems of those on board the plane. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool)

    <ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Australia-Malaysia-Plane-71

    Japan Coast Guard's Gulfstream V aircraft sits on the tarmac at RAAF Base Peace in Perth, Australia, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Ten planes and nine ships resume the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

    <ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    Steve Wang, right, a representative from the committee for relatives of Chinese passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 talks to journalists after a closed door meeting with Malaysian officials via teleconference in Beijing, China, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. A Malaysian police investigation into the pilots of the missing Malaysian jet might turn up nothing, the force's chief said Wednesday, while the head of the international search effort also acknowledged that an air hunt to spot wreckage on the surface of the southern Indian Ocean was not certain of success. The Chinese writing on the t-shirts read "Pray for MH370 safe return" (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

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    Chinese Ambassadors to Malaysia Huang Huikang speaks during a special briefing to the Malaysian media at his embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Malaysia has been criticized by the relatives of some Chinese passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, who accuse them of not giving them enough information or even lying about what it knows about the final movements of the plane. Some are staying in hotels in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, courtesy of Malaysia Airlines. On Wednesday, authorities organized a closed-door briefing in Malaysia for the families with officials and experts involved in the hunt. (AP Photo) MALAYSIA OUT

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A police investigation may never determine the reason why the Malaysia Airlines jetliner disappeared, and search planes scouring the Indian Ocean for any sign of its wreckage aren’t certain to find anything either, officials said today.

The assessment by Malaysian and Australian officials underscored the lack of knowledge authorities have about what happened on Flight 370. It also points to a scenario that becomes more likely with every passing day — that the fate of the Boeing 777 and the 239 people on board might remain a mystery forever.

The plane disappeared March 8 on a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur after its transponders, which make the plane visible to commercial radar, were shut off. Military radar picked up the jet just under an hour later, on the other side of the Malay peninsula. Authorities say until then its “movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane” but have not ruled out anything, including mechanical error.

Police are investigating the pilots and crew for any evidence suggesting they may have hijacked or sabotaged the plane. The backgrounds of the passengers, two-thirds of whom were Chinese, have been checked by local and international investigators and nothing suspicious has been found.

“Investigations may go on and on and on. We have to clear every little thing,” Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “At the end of the investigations, we may not even know the real cause. We may not even know the reason for this incident.”

Police are also investigating the cargo and the food served on the plane to eliminate possible poisoning of passengers and crew, he said.

The search for the plane began over the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea where the plane’s last communications were, and then shifted west to the Strait of Malacca where it was last spotted by military radar. Experts then analyzed hourly satellite “handshakes” between the plane and a satellite and now believe it crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

A search there began just over two weeks ago, and now involves at least nine ships and nine planes.

The current search area is a 85,000-square-mile patch of sea roughly a 2½-hour flight from Perth. The focus of the search has moved several times as experts try to estimate where the plane is most likely to have landed based on assumptions on its altitude, speed and fuel. Currents in the sea are also being studied to see where any wreckage is most likely to have drifted.

Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the multinational search effort out of Australia, said no time frame had been set for the search to end, but that a new approach would be needed if nothing showed up.

“Over time, if we don’t find anything on the surface, we’re going to have to think about what we do next, because clearly it’s vitally important for the families, it’s vitally important for the governments involved that we find this airplane,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

With no other data available indicating where the plane went down, spotting wreckage is key to narrowing down the search area and ultimately finding the plane’s flight data recorders, which will provide a wealth of information about the condition the plane was flying under and possibly the communications or sounds in the cockpit.

The data recorders emit a “ping” that can be detected by special equipment towed by a ship in the immediate vicinity. But the battery-powered recorders stop transmitting the “pings” about 30 days after a crash. Locating the data recorders and wreckage after that is possible, but it becomes an even more daunting task.

Houston said that only once wreckage from the plane was found “we will then be able to narrowly focus the search area so that we can start to exploit the underwater technology devices that will hopefully lead to where the aircraft is on the bottom of the ocean.”

Malaysia has been criticized by the relatives of some Chinese passengers on board, who accuse them of not giving them enough information or even lying about what it knows about the final movements of the plane. Some are staying in hotels in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, courtesy of Malaysia Airlines.

On Wednesday, authorities organized a closed-door briefing in Malaysia for the families with officials and experts involved in the hunt, including the chief of the Malaysian air force.

It was relayed by video conferencing technologies to the relatives in Beijing. Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, said officials answered all the questions raised by the relatives and that they had “a very good meeting.” Several relatives interviewed after session said officials showed them more satellite and other data, but that they were still not satisfied.

“The fact is they didn’t give us any convincing information,” said Steve Wang, a representative of some of the Chinese families in Beijing. “They said themselves that there are many different possibilities, but they are judging on the basis of just one of them.”

Malaysian officials have on occasion given conflicting accounts and contradictory information over the last three weeks. They maintain they are doing their best in what it is an unprecedented situation, and stress they want the same thing as the families, namely to locate the plane as quickly as possible.

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