* Malaysia minister says objects are a "credible lead"
* Australian PM says search planes investigating potential
* Objects about 2,500 km southwest of Perth
* Norwegian merchant vessel arrives in the search area
(Adds search called off for the night)
By Jane Wardell and Siva Govindasamy
SYDNEY/KUALA LUMPUR, March 20 Aircraft and ships
ploughed through dire weather on Thursday in search of objects
floating in remote seas off Australia that Malaysia's government
called a "credible lead" in the trans-continental hunt for a
jetliner missing for nearly two weeks.
The large objects, which Australian officials said were
spotted by satellite four days ago in one of the remotest parts
of the globe, are the most promising find in days as searchers
scour a vast area for the plane lost with 239 people on board.
A Norwegian merchant ship arrived in the area on Thursday,
but officials cautioned it could take days to confirm if the
objects were parts of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing
777. Malaysia's government said the search would continue
elsewhere despite the sighting in the southern Indian Ocean.
The area where the objects were spotted is around 2,500 km
(1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, roughly corresponding to the
far end of a southern track that investigators calculated the
aircraft could have taken after it was diverted.
"Yesterday I said that we wanted to reduce the area of the
search. We now have a credible lead," Malaysian Transport
Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
A search for the plane that began in the tropical waters off
Malaysia's east coast has now switched to the vast, icy southern
oceans between Australia, southern Africa and Antarctica.
Two Royal Australia Air Force AP-3C Orions, a U.S. Navy P-8
Poseidon and a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion were
involved in Thursday's search which was called off late in the
evening and will resume on Friday.
There have been many false leads and no confirmed wreckage
found from Flight MH370 since it vanished from air traffic
control screens off Malaysia's east coast early on March 8, less
than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.
Hishammuddin said the information on the objects received
from Australia had been "corroborated to a certain extent" by
other satellites, making it more credible than previous leads.
The larger of the objects measured up to 24 metres (79 ft),
long and appeared to be floating in water several thousand
metres deep, Australian officials said. The second object was
about five metres (16 feet) long. Arrows on the images pointed
to two indistinct objects apparently bobbing in the water.
"It's credible enough to divert the research to this area on
the basis it provides a promising lead to what might be wreckage
from the debris field," Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore
John McGarry told a news conference in Canberra.
The satellite images, provided by U.S. company DigitalGlobe
, were taken on March 16, meaning that the possible
debris could by now have drifted far from the original site.
Australian officials said an aircraft had dropped a series
of marker buoys in the area, which will provide information
about currents to assist in calculating the latest location.
The captain of the first Australian air force AP-3C Orion
plane to return from the search area described the weather
conditions as "extremely bad" with rough seas and high winds.
A Norwegian car carrier diverted from its journey from
Madagascar to Melbourne and had arrived in the search area, the
ship's owner said. A Royal Australian Navy ship equipped to
recover any objects was also en route.
China's icebreaker for Antarctic research, Xuelong, or Snow
Dragon, will set off from Perth to search the area, Chinese
state news agency Xinhua cited maritime authorities as saying.
About two-thirds of the 227 passengers on Flight MH370 were
Investigators believe that someone with detailed knowledge
of both the Boeing 777-200ER and commercial aviation
navigation switched off the plane's communications systems
before diverting it thousands of miles off its scheduled course.
Exhaustive background checks of the passengers and crew
aboard have yielded barely anything that might explain why.
The discovery of the floating objects was revealed by
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
"The task of locating these objects will be extremely
difficult and it may turn out they are not related to the search
for MH370," he told parliament.
The dimensions of the objects given are consistent with at
least one of them possibly being the major part of a 777-200ER
wing, which is around 27 metres (89 feet) long, though
Australian officials cautioned the first images were indistinct.
The relatively large size of the objects would suggest that,
if they do come from the missing aircraft, it was largely intact
when it went into the water.
If the plane had run out of fuel, it would not necessarily
have plummeted but its behaviour would have depended on whether
there was someone in control and their intentions, pilots said.
Modern aircraft are designed to use the rush of wind to
drive a small emergency turbine that keeps hydraulics and some
electrical power running if the engines run out of fuel.
If the debris is from the plane, investigators would face a
daunting task to retrieve the "black box" data and voice
recorders needed to help understand what caused the disaster.
University of Western Australia Professor of Oceanography
Charitha Pattiaratchi said that, based on currents in the area,
if the debris is from the plane it probably would have entered
the water around 300-400 km (180-250 miles) to the west.
The search area covered an ocean ridge known as Naturalist
Plateau, a large sea shelf about 3,500 metres (9,800 feet) deep,
Pattiaratchi said. The plateau is about 250 km (150 miles) wide
by 400 km (250 miles) long, and the area around it is close to
5,000 metres (16,400 feet) deep.
"Whichever way you go, it's deep," Pattiaratchi said.
Investigators piecing together patchy data from military
radar and satellites believe that, minutes after its identifying
transponder was switched off as it crossed the Gulf of Thailand,
the plane turned sharply west, re-crossing the Malay Peninsula
and following an established route towards India.
What happened next is unclear, but faint electronic "pings"
picked up by one commercial satellite suggest the aircraft flew
on for at least six hours. That would be consistent with the
plane ending up in the southern Indian Ocean.
The methodical shutdown of the communications systems,
together with the fact that the plane appeared to be following a
planned course after turning back, has focused particular
attention on the pilot and co-pilot.
The FBI is helping Malaysian authorities analyse data from a
flight simulator belonging to the captain of the missing plane,
after initial examination showed some data logs had been deleted
early last month.
A Malaysian official with knowledge of the investigations
into the pilots said three simulator games that 53-year-old
pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah had played were being looked at.
"We are following up on the data logs being erased," the
source said. "These could be logs of the games that were erased
to free up memory, so it may not lead us to anything. He played
a lot of games, going into hundreds and thousands of hours."
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher, A. Ananthalakshmi,
Anuradha Raghu and Niluksi Koswanage in Kuala Lumpur, Byron Kaye
and Lincoln Feast in Sydney, Neil Darby in Perth and Mark
Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Alex Richardson and Stuart
Grudgings; Editing by Nick Macfie)