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By Matt Siegel
PERTH, Australia, March 22 (Reuters) - The first Chinese plane heading to Australia to join the hunt for a missing Malaysia Airlines jet landed at the wrong airport on Saturday, underscoring the difficulties facing the increasingly complex multinational search effort.
The Chinese IL-76 military aircraft made an unexpected stop at Perth International Airport before heading to its correct destination at RAAF Base Pearce outside Perth, where search and rescue operations for Flight MH370, which has been missing for two weeks, are now being coordinated.
“They landed at Perth and then they landed here,” RAAF Corporal Janine Fabre told Reuters. “We don’t know why.”
RAAF Base Pearce, a dusty collection of runways and low-slung buildings about 35 km (21 miles) north of Perth, is taking on the feel of a model United Nations as aircraft and ships - not to mention journalists - from at least six countries descend on the region.
But as the number of search vehicles and nationalities increases, so too do the challenges including security sensibilities, language and operational and command issues.
Six aircraft and two merchant vessels are now scouring an area of the remote southern Indian Ocean where suspected debris was spotted by a satellite.
U.S., New Zealand and Australian aircraft on site for three days are now being joined by those from China, Japan and India. All are here to search the zone in the Indian Ocean, more than 2,000 km (1,200 miles) southwest of Perth, where the debris was sighted by satellites six days ago.
Each of the countries has its own motivations, said Andrew Davies, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The majority of the 239 people onboard were Chinese nationals, for example, while Japan may be trying to repay Australia for its help during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Still Davies says that those and additional factors, such as long-standing diplomatic tensions between China and Japan, will be unlikely to derail the mission.
“There might be some practical difficulties with interoperability, data-sharing and communication systems and those sorts of things, but there shouldn’t be anything beyond the good of man,” he told Reuters.
Located in the town of Bullsbrook, Pearce is the main air force base for Western Australia. Its main function is to train pilots for the Australian and Singapore air forces, so it does have some history in international coordination.
Speaking to reporters at the base on Saturday, RAAF Captain Craig Heap and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss praised the Chinese in particular for their assistance and said that they remained confident despite the obvious challenges.
“It’s a very difficult search but at the end of the day if there is something out there and we’re on top of the area often enough, there’s a reasonable chance that we will find something,” he said.
This mission, however, is of a scale far beyond anything Pearce has ever seen before. That much has been made clear by the massive media contingent that has descended on the base over the past 72 hours.
Gary Booth, an RAAF spokesman at Pearce, told Reuters that the biggest logistical challenge actually seemed to be coordinating the journalists, not the rescue vehicles.
“I’ve done one or two big media events mate, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. (Additional reporting by Byron Kaye in Canberra; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)