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India’s search for missing Malaysian plane on hold

NEW DELHI – Massive Indian navy and air search operations for the missing Malaysian jetliner were suspended Sunday until fresh search areas are identified by Malaysia’s government, an official said.

Col. Harmit Singh, spokesman for India’s tri-services command, said coast guard ships have reverted to routine surveillance in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

“Air and sea operations for today have been put on hold,” Singh said.

There was no indication as of Sunday evening when the search efforts would resume. A government official said earlier in the day that Indian and Malaysian officials were scheduled to meet in Kuala Lumpur later Sunday to refine search coordinates. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

The plane, which was carrying 239 people, disappeared March 8 on its way to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

The Indian navy and air force’s coordinated search for the last three days has covered more than 250,000 square kilometers (100,579 square miles) in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal without any sighting of the Boeing 777.

“So far no sighting or detection has been reported by the units deployed for searches in various designated areas,” India’s Defense Ministry said in a statement late Sunday.

“The Malaysian authorities have now indicated that based on investigation, the search operations have entered a new phase and a strategy for further searches is being formulated. Accordingly, search operations have been suspended and all Indian assets earmarked for search operations have been placed on standby,” the statement said.

Nearly a dozen Indian ships, patrol vessels, surveillance aircraft and helicopters have scoured the region. India intensified the search on Saturday by deploying two recently acquired P8i long-range maritime patrol and one C-130J Hercules aircraft. A short-range maritime reconnaissance Dornier aircraft was also deployed.

Vinod Patney, a retired air force officer, said it was unlikely – but not impossible – for an aircraft to intrude a country’s airspace undetected.

Officials said there was effective radar coverage in the region, with a large number of flights between Europe and Southeast Asian using this route. Also, India has tightened security in the area, which is a strategic shipping lane for oil tankers.

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