Officials declare search for survivors over but underwater hunt for missing plane to continue

Malaysia on Thursday has called off its search for survivors of Flight MH 370 and declared the disappearance of the plane over the Indian Ocean an “accident”, Malaysian authorities said.

A statement released by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation said that all 239 people aboard the Boeing 777, which vanished on March 8, 2014, were now presumed dead.

“It is therefore, with the heaviest heart and deepest sorrow that, on behalf of the government of Malaysia, we officially declare Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 an accident,” said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation. “All 239 of the passengers and crew on board MH370 are presumed to have lost their lives.”

The underwater search for wreckage in the Southern Indian Ocean will continue.

Rahman acknowledged that the announcement would “be very difficult for the families and loved ones,” but said it would enable the families to begin the process of claiming compensation.

Most of the passengers aboard the flight were Chinese and Beijing’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on Malaysian officials to “earnestly fulfil their compensation responsibilities.”

Malaysia’s announcement comes more than 10 months after MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The U.S. has been among 13 countries to send aircraft and ships to attempt to recover the jet, which investigators believe crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean.

Rahman described what he said was “a frustrating time for all who have tried their best in the search for MH370.” He said the authorities have “never wavered in our commitment to continue our efforts to find” the airliner. “Its passengers and its crew will always be remembered and honored,” he added.

“The governments of Malaysia, China and Australia have spared no expense and resources in the search for MH370,” Rahman said. “This has been done with the paramount aim to find the aircraft and to seek answers. It has been done in hope of bringing some solace to the families of the passengers and crew on board MH370.

Radar specialists are pictured aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

Radar specialists are pictured aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

Families ask not to declare MH370 lost without evidence

According to a report by Guardian, the Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis has been severely criticised by relatives of the missing passengers and crew. Several next-of-kin, some holding placards calling for the return of their family members, arrived at the briefing location in the headquarters of the Department of Civil Aviation, furious about not being briefed before the news conference.

“The most frustrating thing is that they [were planning] an announcement to the world first, then only to the next of kin,” said Wesley Walter, whose brother-in-law was on the flight. “Why are the next of kin being treated this way?” families ask.

The support group for the families said they had referred the impending announcement to the Joint Action Coordination Centre (JACC), the Australian-led body conducting the search as JACC had assured them that the ongoing search was progressing according to plan and that one third of the area has been covered, says a report by Malaysian Insider. The families had also appealed to aviation organisations such as ICAO and IATA to support them by urging the relevant authorities to continue the search for the missing plane and their loved ones.

The families added that the least they expected of the Malaysian authorities was for them to wait for the completion of the first phase of the search before making any announcement. “What we appeal for is assurance from the Chinese, Malaysian and Australian authorities that the search will not be abandoned anytime soon,” the group said.

An interim report on the investigation into MH370 is due to be released by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) on March 7, a day before the first anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, according to a Reuters report.

High school students hold candles during a vigil for passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in Lianyungang, east China's Jiangsu province. (AFP PHOTO)

High school students hold candles during a vigil for passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in Lianyungang, east China’s Jiangsu province. (AFP PHOTO)