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MH370: Australia kept Malaysia's face saving secret that pilot chief suspect -

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MARK COLVIN: We begin tonight with the revelation that Australia knew two years ago of evidence in Malaysia that the captain of the missing MH370 airliner made off with the plane.

But the Government kept secret the evidence that suggested that it was a premeditated act of mass murder.

A senior search official has confirmed to PM that only days after the plane disappeared, there was undisclosed evidence that Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had practiced a strangely similar flight plan weeks before, on a $25 simulator game.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull came close to confirming it during a media conference today, but insisted it was a matter for Malaysia to reveal.

PM has been told that the evidence of a computer simulated flight decided the search zone off the WA coast, but that too was kept secret from taxpayers.

In a further blow to relatives, PM has also been told that cost considerations saw Australia, Malaysia and China quietly shelve a plan to continue searching for the plane.

Peter Lloyd has the story.

PETER LLOYD: It may not have been his intention, but today the Prime Minister's choice of words made him the first leader of an MH370 search nation to abandon the policy of denial and confirm that there is indeed police evidence that the plane's disappearance was no accident, no mystery at all to the Malaysian government.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: It's a matter for the Malaysian investigators when they're considering their final report into this tragedy.

PETER LLOYD: Hardly certain given Malaysia's police today are still denying that police information exists.

From the beginning, Captain Zaharie was a prime suspect, but until now evidence to implicate him was kept secret.

There were published rumours that the FBI had discovered such evidence on the flight simulator game on the pilot's home computer.

Now that, and more, is in the public domain after a mysterious leak of a purported Malaysian police document that goes into detail about the FBI's detective work.

Aviation writer Jeff Wise is a pilot and scientist. His scoop appeared in New York magazine at the weekend.

JEFF WISE: Well we've heard rumours for a long time that the Malaysians had passed along Zaharie's hard drive to the FBI in the United States and that the FBI had, through their leisure domain, discovered a deleted file that showed a flight path to the southern Indian Ocean.

Unfortunately they've only been rumours because although, you know, reputable sources within some of the search agencies have told the reputable journalists, all we've had to go on is the word of that journalist.

And what's new now is that I was able to see the documentation. I think, I would see this as confirming the conclusion that they probably reached from (inaudible) itself.

PETER LLOYD: Do we know how long before he took the flight the simulation occurred?

JEFF WISE: It's a little bit fuzzy. Apparently the numbers are the dates, is it, you know, was it saved on this date, was it backed up to this date, I'm not a windows expert. What I'm told is that it was sometime in February. Of course, the plane went missing in March, so it would be some time in the previous month.

PETER LLOYD: Today PM was told this information was used in the mapping of the search zone off the WA coast, but the existence of it was never acknowledged by then prime minister Tony Abbott.

The search in harrowing seas has been going on for two years, but as far back as last April, search officials meeting in Kuala Lumpur were planning exit strategies.

But behind the scenes, Australian officials were anxious about the contradictions of keeping taxpayers in the dark, while keeping Malaysia's face saving secret about Captain Zaharie's flight simulation.

PM has been told that it was Australia that crafted the language of the exit strategy deployed last Friday in the communiqué.

COMMUNIQUE (voiceover): Ministers agreed that should the aircraft not be located in the current search area, and in the absence of credible new evidence leading to the identification of a specific location of the aircraft, the search would not end, but be suspended upon completion of the 120,000 square kilometre search area.

PETER LLOYD: At the media conference to announce the decision, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister Darren Chester MP and his counterparts made that decision, agreed over a year ago, sound freshly minted.

The Malaysian Minister Liow Tiong Lai sounded empathy for the relatives

LIOW TIONG: We understand that this will be a difficult time for them and are committed to doing everything within our means to assist.

PETER LLOYD: As he spoke, a family group was under police guard outside. A request to see the Ministers was denied. Grace Nathan's mother Ann was a passenger.

GRACE NATHAN: Two years is short. Two and a half years is short. So now is definitely not the time to stop.

PETER LLOYD: PM understands the Ministers kept mum about a draft plan to move the search south-east of the current zone. But the cost - $100 million or more - seems to have killed off the plan, even before it was given public airing.

MARK COLVIN: Peter Lloyd.

PM has been trying to contact the Transport Minister Darren Chester for a response for the last four days, but so far has received no response.