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New US lead on 'pings' thrusts Malaysia jet search into Indian Ocean

KUALA LUMPUR - The needle-in-a-haystack hunt for a missing Malaysian airliner spread to the vast Indian Ocean Friday after the White House cited "new information" that it might have flown for hours after vanishing nearly seven days ago.

Multiple US media reports, citing American officials, said the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777's communication system continued to "ping" a satellite for a number of hours after it disappeared off radar with 239 people aboard, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

"It's my understanding that based on some new information that's not necessarily conclusive, but new information, an additional search area may be opened in the Indian Ocean," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

A US Navy official told AFP that the USS Kidd was "transiting the Strait of Malacca en route to the Indian Ocean". The guided-missile destroyer was initially deployed to the Gulf of Thailand on the other side of Malaysia's coast.

It was the latest in a series of tantalising leads that have pulled the search for flight MH370 in multiple directions and deepened one of the biggest mysteries in modern aviation history.

Delhi-based aviation analyst Kapil Kak, a former Indian air marshal, called the situation "inexplicable, unprecedented and shocking".

The new thrust opens an additional search front of daunting magnitude. The Indian Ocean is the world's third largest with an average depth of nearly 3,900 meters (12,800 feet).

It is like going "from a chessboard to a football field", Commander William Marks of the US 7th Fleet told CNN.

Marks insisted the search remained coordinated with the Malaysian authorities and that the US Navy was "not out here freelancing".

'Unprecedented' challenge

Malaysia has yet to react publicly to the latest US information, but a spokesman for the search response effort said the government was aware of the media reports and White House comments.

Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that it had "nothing further to add".

The lack of results so far has created a volatile mix of grief, anger, frustration and speculation that the Malaysian authorities have struggled to control.

The government has stressed the "unprecedented" nature of the challenge, with the search parameters expanding daily and the focus swinging wildly from the east to the west of the Malaysian peninsula.

The Boeing 777 vanished early Saturday over the South China Sea with no indication of distress. The night was clear and the weather was fine. The plane has one of the best safety records of any jet, and the airline also has a solid record.

"There are so many stories swirling around. This morning one man told me the plane had landed in Africa," said Subramaniam Gurusamy, a 60-year-old Malaysian security guard whose son was on the flight.

"How am I going to explain to my grandchildren that nobody knows where their father is?" he told AFP.

Adding to the anguish of relatives -- most of whom are Chinese -- has been the succession of false leads, mixed signals, and miscommunication between the various countries involved in the hunt.

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A woman cries as she leaves from a room setup for relatives of Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at a hotel in Beijing, China, Friday, March 14.

(AP)

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