Australia focuses on both Malaysian jet disasters

Published July 23, 2014 5:16AM (EDT)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The monthslong hunt for the Malaysian airliner that vanished off the Australian coast will not be interrupted by the top search official's new job in recovering bodies from the downed airliner in Ukraine, the Australian government said Wednesday.

Angus Houston heads Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Center, which oversees the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that is believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean on March 8 after mysteriously veering far off course during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The former Australian defense chief was in the Ukrainian town of Kharkiv on Wednesday as the prime minister's special envoy to receive the bodies of Australian victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The aircraft was shot down last week by a suspected surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed rebels, with the loss of 298 lives.

Transport Minister Warren Truss said that the search for Flight 370 "continues uninterrupted."

"We remain fully committed to conducting a thorough undersea search of the likely impact zone in the Indian Ocean," Truss said in a statement.

Houston's deputy Judith Zielke will oversee the coordination center and keep the families of the 239 victims updated on the search's progress, Truss said.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is conducting seabed mapping using two survey ships covering a 60,000-square kilometer (23,000-square mile) expanse, which is a crucial final step before a sonar search for the missing Boeing 777's wreckage begins in September.

An initial search of 850 square kilometers (330 square miles) of seabed to the north ended with officials concluding that they were focusing their efforts in the wrong place.

Australia has search responsibility under international conventions for the area 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) off Australia's west coast, where Flight 370 is thought to have run out of fuel and crashed. Australia has also taken a leadership role in the latest tragedy by moving a U.N. Security Council resolution on Monday demanding that rebels who hold the crash site cooperate with an independent investigation and allow for victims' remains to be recovered.

Australia has also sent accident investigation and victim identification experts to Ukraine as well as a C-17 Globemaster military transport jet to take the bodies to the Netherlands for identification.

By Rod Mcguirk

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