US investigators suspect jetliner flew for hours after contact lost

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - No signs of the missing Malaysian jetliner have been found at a spot where Chinese satellite images showed what might be plane debris, Malaysia's civil aviation chief said Thursday, deflating the latest lead in the five-day hunt.

"There is nothing. We went there, there is nothing," Azharuddin Abdul Rahman told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

But the Wall Street Journal reported U.S. investigators believe the jetliner flew on for four hours once it lost contact with air traffic controllers.

The suspicion is based on data from the plane's engines that are automatically downloaded and transmitted to the ground as part of routine maintenance programs.

The report raises questions as to why the Boeing 777 was flying like that, and if anyone was in control during that time. 

Vietnamese officials previously said the area had been "searched thoroughly" in recent days.

The hunt for the Boeing 777 has been punctuated by false leads since it disappeared with 239 people aboard just hours after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early Saturday. The plane was heading northeast over the South China Sea when it disappeared, but authorities believe it may have turned back and headed into the upper reaches of the Strait of Malacca or beyond.

The location where Chinese images showed possible debris is not far from where the last confirmed position of the plane was between Malaysia and Vietnam. The images and co-ordinates were posted on the website of China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

A Xinhua report said the images from around 11 a.m. on Sunday appear to show "three suspected floating objects" of varying sizes in a 20-kilometre radius, the largest about 24-by-22 metres (79-by-72 feet) off the southern tip of Vietnam.

Pham Quy Tieu, deputy transport minister, told The Associated Press that the area had been "searched thoroughly" by forces from other countries over the past few days. Doan Huu Gia, chief of air search and rescue co-ordinationcentre, said Malaysian and Singaporean aircraft were scheduled to visit the area again Thursday.

Li Jiaxiang, chief of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said later China had yet to confirm any link between the suspected floating objects and the plane.

Malaysia has come under some criticism for its handling of the search, which currently covers 35,800 square miles (92,600 square kilometres) and involves 12 nations.

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