Malaysia Airlines MH370: search called off as storm sweeps ocean

A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion flies past HMAS Success during the search this week. Photo: AFP/PoolPlanes searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 turned back to Perth on Thursday afternoon as dangerous weather conditions swept across the southern Indian Ocean.
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But an update from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority announced that ships would keep searching, with the bad weather expected to continue for the next 24 hours.

The air search was called off just four hours after AMSA announced it had resumed operations for the day.

It is the second day this week that conditions at sea have forced the suspension of the international search in an area that is notorious for its rapidly changing conditions.

Five ships and 11 aircraft were scheduled to be involved in Thursday’s operation, which is covering 78,000 square kilometres of ocean in an area some 2500km south-west of Perth.

On Thursday, WA’s chief Bureau of Meteorology forecaster, Neil Bennett, said although the BOM forecast had been for severe weather on Thursday, the timing of when it would hit the search zone had not been clear.

The search zone falls into an area of the Indian Ocean branded “the roaring forties” by mariners who regularly experienced gale force winds when passing through the area.

“For any vessel encountering gale force winds, you’ve got to take precautions, there are safety issues there, they are dangerous conditions,” Mr Bennett said.

BOM forecasts the winds and rain will begin clearing again from late Thursday night.

“There may well be some showers still hanging around tomorrow but we believe the frequency and intensity of the showers and wind will decrease,” Mr Bennett said.

A Reuters crew were at Perth International airport speaking to the officer in charge of the US Navy P-8 Poseidon, which was being prepared for takeoff, when the air search was abruptly halted.

“The forecast in the area was calling for severe icing, severe turbulence and near zero visibility,” Lieutenant Commander Adam Schantz told Reuters.

“Anybody who’s out there is coming home and all additional sorties from here are cancelled.”

Staff reporters

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Search for MH370: desperate urgency permeates Malaysia as misinformation swirls

Kuala Lumpur: What you have read about the events on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is probably wrong.
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Seemingly endless theories and speculation have swirled around the disappearance for almost three weeks.

Unnamed sources quoted in the world’s media have trashed the reputations of the pilots.

Experts have prognosticated about possible scenarios ranging from a fire, explosion, mechanical failure, pilot suicide, sabotage and hijacking.

The truth is, investigating authorities do not know why the Boeing 777 turned around from its scheduled flight path over the South China Sea.

Even more baffling is why and how it flew on for more than seven more hours before crashing into the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, one of the most desolate places on earth.

Could those on board have still been alive on a terror flight to nowhere?

The reason you haven’t seen authorities in Kuala Lumpur deny any of the dozens of theories that have dominated a media starved of verified information is because they cannot rule out any possibility.

Journalists can put any scenario they like at a nightly press briefing in Kuala Lumpur and get the same reply: it can’t be ruled in or out.

The disappearance of the plane with 239 people on board has become the most baffling mystery of modern aviation.

An FBI examination of the home flight simulator of senior pilot Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah may uncover data that could provide some clues.

He has been the focus of attention because it would have taken someone with a pilot’s knowledge to punch a code into a computer to turn the plane around.

But the fact is that nothing suspicious has been found in his background so far, and the evidence known publicly points to him being a good person with 18,000 flying hours’ experience.

Forensic experts will examine debris pulled from the icy waters of the Indian Ocean for any clues, if any is found.

Hopes have been raised by satellite imagery of 122 objects seen by floating in a 400 square kilometre arc, corroborating other sightings of possible debris.

But even if ships heading to the area pull wreckage of the plane from the water it could have drifted hundreds of kilometres from where the plane ditched into ocean 19 days earlier.

A sense of desperate urgency permeates the operational command centre in Kuala Lumpur, because officials fear that unless the plane’s black box recorder is found there is a strong possibility it will never be known what happened on board MH370.

There is now less then two weeks before the box’s batteries stop emitting a signal from a kilometres-deep ocean floor.

As Mark Binskin, deputy chief of Australia’s defence force said this week “we’re not searching for a needle in a haystack, we’re still trying to find the haystack.”

Lindsay Murdoch has been covering MH370  from Kuala Lumpur since the airliner disappeared on March 8.

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MH370: ‘I know my father,’ says missing pilot’s son

Ahmad Seth Zaharie, 26, with his sister Aishah Zaharie (left), 27, and mother Faizah Khanum Mustafa Khan.
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Ahmad Seth Zaharie, 26, with his sister Aishah Zaharie (left), 27, and mother Faizah Khanum Mustafa Khan.

Ahmad Seth Zaharie, 26, with his sister Aishah Zaharie (left), 27, and mother Faizah Khanum Mustafa Khan.

Ahmad Seth Zaharie, 26, with his sister Aishah Zaharie (left), 27, and mother Faizah Khanum Mustafa Khan.

Seth and family

The son of the experienced pilot who flew the missing Malaysian Airlines flight has insisted his father was not the kind of man who would hijack a plane.

Ahmad Seth, the youngest of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s three children, told Malaysian media he has paid no attention to suggestions his father may have been involved in a hijacking or suicide mission.

“I’ve read everything online. But I’ve ignored all the speculation. I know my father better,” the 26-year-old student told the New Straits Times, an English-language newspaper in Malaysia.

Amid the incessant theories about the flight, which disappeared on March 8, many have speculated about state of mind and political persuasions of the 53-year-old pilot at the controls of flight MH370.

This week, a New Zealand publication claimed to have spoken to one of Captain Shah’s friends who said the experienced pilot was going through a number of relationship problems and felt that his life was crumbling at the time of the ill-fated flight.

Shortly after the plane vanished, attention turned to whether Captain Shah or his co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, had deliberately crashed the jet as part of a suicide mission.

The political leanings and religious beliefs of Captain Shah have also been closely examined in the media. It has been claimed the captain was a political activist who attended the trial of Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, just seven hours before he took control of the passenger jet.

“We may not be as close as he travels so much. But I understand him,” Mr Seth said.

He said the family was holding out for “the right confirmation” that the aircraft ended its journey in the southern Indian Ocean.

“I will believe it [that there are no survivors] when I see the proof in front of my eyes,” he said.

He is the first of the pilot’s immediate family members to speak publicly since the search began.

Captain Shah joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981 and was certified by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation as a simulator test examiner.

He had 18,365 flying hours experience, and had installed a Boeing 777 flight simulator in his home, from which he made YouTube videos.

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George Brandis says cabinet made ‘collective decision’ to release exposure draft on changes to race hate laws

Attorney-General George Brandis: “Cabinet decisions… are collective decisions and the decision to release this exposure draft was the collective decision of the cabinet.” Photo: Andrew MearesAttorney-General George Brandis says cabinet made a collective decision to release an exposure draft on changes to race hate laws, but has not denied that he was forced by colleagues to water down his original proposal.
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And he has played down suggestions that he was at loggerheads with Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs – who has criticised the government’s proposed changes – and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, who disagreed with Senator Brandis’s suggestion this week that people have the right to be bigoted.

Mr O’Farrell declared on Thursday that vilification on the grounds of race or religion is ”always wrong”.

Fairfax Media revealed on Thursday that Senator Brandis was forced to soften his original proposal to loosen constraints on racist insults and hate speech in a lengthy cabinet meeting on Monday night.

The Attorney-General was obliged to settle for only a draft exposure bill. This allows the government position to remain fluid and community groups to react. The changes proposed to the Racial Discrimination Act in an exposure draft released to the government party room on Tuesday contained a weakening of Senator Brandis’ original proposals.

The outcome represented what one minister described as a compromise between the conservative and moderate factions. One minister said: ”George has really drunk the right-wing Kool-Aid.”

Another minister said Mr Brandis’ original proposal was ”much worse” than the agreed text and he had been forced to back down.

‘Cabinet decisions are collective decisions’

Pressed in the Senate on Thursday, Senator Brandis said it was a “matter of public record that the cabinet had a discussion about this matter on Monday. You would know and you would not expect me to reveal cabinet discussion”.

“Cabinet decisions… are collective decisions and the decision to release this exposure draft was the collective decision of the cabinet.”

Senator Brandis said Mr O’Farrell’s comments were a “very measured contribution to this debate”.

“I agree with them, and I particularly agree with what Mr O’Farrell said when he said, if I may quote him, when he said ‘vilification on the grounds of race or religion is always wrong. There’s no place for inciting hatred within our Australia society’.”

And he welcomed Professor Triggs’ differing view on the proposed changes.

“The fact that there are a variety of views in the HRC is itself relevant to the fact that we are having a debate in the community about where the line should be drawn between the two goals that I suspect everyone in this chamber subscribes too,” he said.

“On the one hand protecting freedom of speech and freedom of public discussion and on the other hand protecting racial minorities from vilification.

“It’s the government’s view that the fact that there are a variety of opinions about how best to arrive at the twin objectives which we all share is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Victoria, NSW raise concerns with proposed changes

Opening a Museum of Sydney exhibition documenting the history of the Chinese community in Sydney on Thursday, Mr O’Farrell said the work was important because of ”issues that are happening at the federal level”.

”In commendably seeking to protect freedom of speech, we must not lower our defences against the evil of racial and religious intolerance,” he said.

”Bigotry should never be sanctioned, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Vilification on the grounds of race or religion is always wrong. There’s no place for inciting hatred within our Australia society.”

Victoria’s Multicultural Affairs Minister, Matthew Guy, has also questioned the proposed changes, telling the State Parliament the Coalition government would formally raise its concerns with the Commonwealth.

“I am concerned there may be some harmful and unintended impacts upon our community should the exposure draft as it stands be enacted,” Mr Guy said.

Senator Brandis made his ‘bigots’ comment this week in response to criticism by Labor of the federal government moves to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

It was used to prosecute News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt over an article he wrote attacking ”fair-skinned” Aborigines.

Under questioning from Labor Senator Nova Peris, Senator Brandis said: ”People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find insulting or offensive or bigoted.”

But Mr O’Farrell said Australians ”enjoy a history as a state and a nation of which we can be overwhelmingly proud”.

”But we must never forget that includes appalling examples of the consequences of intolerance and hatred,” he said.

”No government, no organisation, no citizen can afford to be less than vigilant in combating bigotry, intolerance and hatred. And frankly, our way of life depends on that vigilance.”

The exposure draft released has proposed section 18C, which makes it unlawful for someone to act in a manner likely to ”offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity, would be repealed while section 18D, which provides protections for freedom of speech, will be removed and replaced by a new section.

The changes remove the words ”offend, insult and humiliate”, leave in ”intimidate” and adds the word ”vilify” for the first time.

But a passage in the exposure draft that exempts words and images “in public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”, has attracted a storm of criticism for being too broad and weakening current protections.

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ERA considering options after Ranger mine toxic leak

A change to lower grade ores at the Ranger uranium mine was the catalyst that lead to a spill of radioactive material in December, according to the Rio Tinto subsidiary in charge of the mine.
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Energy Resources of Australia confirmed that investigations into the December 7 spill – which have halted processing at the mine ever since – had been completed

The probe showed that two protective layers inside a leach tank failed before the steel tank itself was eaten through by the toxic mix of acids and uranium particles.

ERA has traced the problem back to 2009, when the company switched from high grade uranium ore to lower grade laterite ores, and duly had to make changes to its processing equipment.

A ”high powered agitator” was installed in the tank in a bid to help with leaching the new ores, but the agitator appears to have displaced a piece of protective equipment, which duly damaged the rubber lining designed to protect the tank.

“The damaged rubber lining allowed acidic slurry mixture to come into contact with the tank’s steel wall, which subsequently corroded and lead to the failure of the tank,” the company said today in a statement.

A search of five other leach tanks on site found that similar, but less extensive stress, was evident in one other tank, and ERA said it would take advantage of the current shutdown and properly refit all six of its leach tanks.

On top of that, ERA said an investigation of its entire operations had found seven “critical” issues that needed to be addressed before restart, with most relating to the state of tanks used in the processing stage

The leak angered environmentalists given the mine’s close proximity to Kakadu National Park, and mine will not be able to restart processing until approvals are gained from the federal and Northern Territory governments.

ERA – which is 68 per cent owned by Rio Tinto – has always said it has enough stockpiles to meet its uranium sale contracts for the first half of calendar year 2014.

But the company said for the first time today that it is considering options for how it meets its uranium sales contracts in the second half, indicating that the shutdown could last several more months.

Under that scenario, ERA may be forced to buy uranium from another miner and deliver that to its customers, in a bid to avoid a breach of contract.

The mine’s future remains uncertain in the wake of the spill, with local indigenous groups and environmentalists unconvinced about the merits of operating such a mine in such an environmentally sensitive and high rainfall area.

It is also unclear whether Ranger still has enough uranium to warrant continued mining, with ERA conducting an underground exploration campaign.

Any future mining on site will depend on exploration success.

ERA shares were 2¢ lower at $1.325.

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