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Australia steps up hunt for MH370 as search expands further

Australia has said it will take charge of searching the southern part of the area where missing jet MH370 may have flown. Chinese media have meanwhile once more slammed Malaysia for its handling of the issue.

Australia said on Monday that it would lead search operations in the "southern vector" of the region where missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is thought to have possibly flown.

"[Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak] asked that Australia take responsibility for the search on the southern vector, which the Malaysian authorities now think was one possible flight path for this ill-fated aircraft," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament.

"I agreed that we would do so," Abbott said.

Abbott said the defense chiefs of Malaysia and Australia were discussing how best to implement the arrangement.

Asked earlier whether Australian agencies had detected the plane anywhere near Australia, Abbott said, "I don't have any information to that effect."

Some 26 countries are now involved in the search for MH370, including French investigators who are to pass on expertise gathered during a two-year hunt for an Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic ocean in 2009.

'Deliberate diversion'

The Malaysian government said on Saturday that investigations suggested the plane, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew, was deliberately diverted either north toward Central Asia, or towards the

southern Indian Ocean.

Malaysian officials said on Monday that searches in both the northern and southern corridors had begun.

Six Australians were on board the flight, which was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur when it vanished.

Malaysian authorities are

continuing to investigate the backgrounds of the pilots, crew and ground staff

who worked on the missing Boeing 777-200ER in the hope of finding clues as to why someone may have flown it far off its course.

Investigators believe the aircraft was

diverted by someone with expert knowledge of the plane and navigation.

These suspicions have been reinforced after confirmation that the last radio message from the cockpit came after someone had started disabling one of the plane's automatic tracking systems.

Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told a news conference on Monday that initial investigations suggested the co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, was the speaker of the last words heard from the flight to ground controllers: "All right, good night."

'Contradictory and piecemeal'

Malaysia has come under increasing criticism from China for its handling of the incident, with two-thirds of the plane's passengers being Chinese.

An editorial in the China Daily newspaper on Monday asked why Kuala Lumpur had waited more than a week before announcing that the plane's disappearance may have been "deliberate."

"The contradictory and piecemeal information Malaysia Airlines and its government have provided has made search efforts difficult and the entire incident more mysterious," the newspaper wrote.

"What else is known that has not been shared with the world?" it asked.

An op-ed in China's state-run global Times newspaper also stated that Malaysia had "lost authority and credibility" through its response, and even suggested that the country should hand over the command of the search operation if it continued to be fruitless.

tj/kms (AFP, Reuters)

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