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June 29, 2017

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Air search expands in remote south Indian Ocean

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The first plane sent Friday to fly over one of the remotest places on Earth returned empty handed from its hunt through rough seas for objects that may be from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, Australian officials said.

Another three planes were still in the area trying to help solve the nearly 2-week-old aviation mystery, and another was on the way to look for two large objects a satellite detected floating off the southwest coast of Australia about halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.

The area in the southern Indian Ocean is so remote is takes aircraft longer to fly there — four hours — than it allows for the search.

The satellite discovery raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.

A search Thursday with four planes in cloud and rain found nothing, and so far efforts Friday were the same, with a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion plane flying back to Australia.

Two more Orions and an ultra-long-range Bombardier Global Express were still scouring the area 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) from western Australia, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft also was in the air, but like the other planes, once it arrives it will have enough fuel for only two to three hours of search time before returning to Perth.

Lisa Martin, spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said weather conditions were getting better as the day wore on, with moderate seas and some cloud cover, and improving visibility.

Mike Yardley, an air commodore with New Zealand's air force, said the search Thursday was hampered when an Orion was forced to duck below thick clouds and fog to a very low altitude of 60 meters (200 feet).

But Yardley was optimistic that the searchers will find the objects. "We will find it — I'm sure about that piece of it. The only reason we wouldn't find it was that it has sunk," he said of the large unidentified object spotted by the satellite.

"I've been on these missions before when it's taken a few days to come across it," he said.

Speaking at a news conference in Papua New Guinea, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, "We've been throwing everything we've got at that area to try to learn more about what this debris might be."

He said that the objects "could just be a container that's fallen off a ship — we just don't know."

Abbott spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he described as "devastated." Of the 227 passengers on the missing flight, 154 were from China.

"It's about the most inaccessible spot that you could imagine on the face of the earth, but if there is anything down there we will find it. We owe it to the families of those people to do no less," Abbott said.

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