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Oil Slick Samples Not From Plane       04/17 06:14

   PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Investigators were analyzing data collected by a 
robotic submarine that completed its first successful scan of the seabed 
Thursday in the hunt for the missing Malaysian plane, but say tests have ruled 
out that a nearby oil slick came from the aircraft.

   The unmanned sub's first two missions were cut short by technical problems 
and deep water, but the Bluefin 21 finally managed to complete a full 16-hour 
scan of the silt-covered seabed far off Australia's west coast, the search 
coordination center said. While data collected during the mission, which ended 
overnight, were still being analyzed, nothing of note had yet been discovered, 
the center said. The sub has now covered 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) 
of seafloor.

   Separately, the center said the oil analysis done in the western city of 
Perth came up empty when the samples tested negative for aircraft oil or 
hydraulic fluid. The oil was collected earlier this week from a slick about 5.5 
kilometers (3.4 miles) from the area where equipment picked up underwater 
sounds consistent with an aircraft black box.

   It was hoped that the oil would be evidence that officials are looking in 
the right place for Flight 370, which vanished March 8 while en route from 
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. Searchers have yet to find any physical 
proof that the sounds that led them to the ocean floor where the Bluefin has 
been deployed were from the ill-fated jet.

   Twelve planes and 11 ships were scouring a 40,300-square-kilometer 
(15,600-square-mile) patch of sea for any debris that may be floating on the 
ocean surface, about 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth.

   Despite weeks of searching, no debris related to the jet has been found and 
earlier this week, search effort leader Angus Houston said the surface hunt 
would be ending within days. But the search coordination center on Thursday 
said crews would continue searching the ocean surface into next week.

   Malaysia's defense minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, confirmed that the search 
would continue through Easter weekend, but acknowledged that officials would 
have to rethink their strategy at some point if nothing is found.

   "There will come a time when we need to regroup and reconsider, but in any 
event, the search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach," he 
said at a news conference Thursday.

   Radar and satellite data show the Boeing 777 flew far off-course for an 
unknown reason and would have run out of fuel in a desolate patch of the Indian 
Ocean west of Australia.

   A ship-towed device detected four underwater signals that are believed to 
have come from the plane's black boxes shortly before the batteries powering 
the devices' beacons likely died. The sounds helped narrow the search area to 
the waters where the Bluefin is now operating.

   The U.S. Navy's unmanned sub cut short its first mission on Monday because 
it exceeded its maximum operating depth of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet). 
Searchers moved it away from the deepest waters before redeploying the sub to 
scan the seabed with sonar to map a potential debris field.

   But the center said Thursday that officials are now confident that the sub 
can safely go deeper than was thought, allowing it to cover the entire search 
area, which has been narrowed based on further analysis of the four underwater 
signals.

   In addition to finding the plane itself, investigators want to recover the 
black boxes in hopes the cockpit voice and flight data recorders can explain 
why the plane lost communications and flew so far off-course before 
disappearing.


(KA)


 
 
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