* Bad weather and lack of solid information hampering search
* Malaysian investigation rules out passengers, focuses on
pilots and crew
* Search area covers 221,000 sq km of southern Indian Ocean
* Black box beacon will run out of batteries soon
* Malaysian prime minister due to visit Australia
(Updates with details of search)
By Matt Siegel and Niluksi Koswanage
PERTH/KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 Malaysian police
have ruled out involvement of any passengers in the
disappearance of a missing jetliner, while Australian officials
warned bad weather and a lack of reliable information were
impeding efforts to find wreckage from the plane.
Up to 10 planes and nine ships from a half dozen countries
on Wednesday scoured a stretch of the Indian Ocean roughly the
size of Britain, where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370
is believed to have crashed more than three weeks ago.
Authorities have not ruled out mechanical problems as
causing the disappearance, but say all the evidence suggests the
plane was deliberately diverted from its scheduled route from
Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Malaysia's police chief said the investigation was focusing
on the cabin crew and pilots, after clearing all 227 passengers
of possible involvement in hijacking, sabotage or having
personal or psychological problems that could have been
connected to the disappearance.
"They have been cleared," national police chief Khalid Abu
Bakar was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
The search and rescue teams are in a race against time to
locate the plane's black box recorder, which has an expected
battery life of around 30 days and without which it may never be
possible to find the wreckage.
Retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the head of the
Australian agency coordinating the operation, said that a lack
of reliable flight telemetry and punishing conditions at sea
were making the operation even more challenging.
"In other words, we don't have a precise aircraft location
for six hours before the aircraft went into the water
somewhere," he said in an interview with the Australian
"The reality is it's the most complex and challenging search
and rescue operation, or search and recovery operation now, that
I've ever seen."
Broken clouds, sea fog and isolated thunderstorms were
expected to further complicate operations, Australia's Joint
Agency Coordination Centre said.
The search is now focused on an inhospitable 221,000 sq km
(85,000 sq miles) swathe of the southern Indian Ocean some 1,500
km (932 miles) west of the Australian city of Perth. But despite
the unprecedented effort, the international team has so far
failed to spot any trace of the jetliner.
"Look, it's one of the great mysteries of our time,"
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in an interview with
local Perth radio station Radio 6iX.
"We owe it to the world, we owe it to those families, to do
whatever we reasonably can do get to the bottom of this."
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was expected to arrive
in Perth late on Wednesday to inspect the search and rescue
operations, which are being conducted out of RAAF Base Pearce
north of the city. He was expected to meet Abbott on Thursday.
Najib will arrive with Malaysia coming under fresh fire for
its handling of the incident after authorities there changed
their account of the plane's critical last communication.
Malaysia on Tuesday released the full transcript of
communications between the Boeing 777 and local air
traffic control before it dropped from civilian radar in the
early hours of March 8. (for full transcript, click: r.reuters.com/kam28v)
While indicating nothing abnormal, the transcript showed the
final words from the cockpit were not the casual "All right,
good night" that authorities first reported, but the more
standard "Good night Malaysian three seven zero."
Minutes after the final radio transmission was received the
plane's communications were cut off and it turned back across
Peninsular Malaysia and headed towards the Indian Ocean,
according to military radar and limited satellite data.
Malaysian authorities have faced heavy criticism,
particularly from China, for mismanaging the search, now in its
fourth fruitless week, and holding back information. Most of the
239 people on board the flight were Chinese.
Among the vessels due to join the search in the coming days
is an Australian defence force ship, the Ocean Shield, that has
been fitted with a sophisticated U.S. black box locator and an
Britain is sending HMS Tireless, a Trafalgar-class nuclear
submarine with sonar capabilities, to help with the search,
Malaysia's transport ministry said in a statement.
Still, Houston said the challenging search would continue
based on the imperfect information with which they had to work.
"It's vitally important for the governments involved that we
find this aeroplane," he said. "But I'm just pointing out that
it won't be easy given the circumstances that surround this
particular search and recovery operation."
(Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in KUALA LUMPUR;
Editing by Alex Richardson)