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MH370 is 'highly likely' to be north of suspended search zone: ATSB -

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THOMAS ORITI: The head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has declared it's highly likely the wreckage of missing Malaysia airlines flight MH-370 is north of the suspended search zone.

The governments of Malaysia, China and Australia have decided to suspend the underwater search for the plane.

But the ATSB's Greg Hood maintains that experts have a fair idea of where it might be.

Eliza Borrello reports.

ELIZA BORRELLO: The underwater search for MH-370 is over - suspended until more credible evidence comes forward is how the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia describe it.

But as the cameras rolled in Perth today and with the Federal Transport Minister standing right behind him, the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Greg Hood, made a frank declaration.

GREG HOOD: It's highly likely that the area now defined by the experts contains the aircraft, but that's not absolutely for certain.

ELIZA BORRELLO: So why wouldn't you expand the search area if experts think they know where the plane is, came the question from a reporter.

Mr Hood's answer was brief but clear.

GREG HOOD: That's a question for governments.

ELIZA BORRELLO: The Malaysian Transport Minister, Dato' Sri Liow Tiong Lai, acknowledged Mr Hood's view but was resolute.

DATO' SRI LIOW TIONG LAI: The expert team shown to us, that is the most probable area after the suspension of the 120,000 square kilometre search and we'd need more.

The decision is that we need more credible evidence before we move to the next search area.

ELIZA BORRELLO: The Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester is also standing by the decision to stop the underwater search.

DARREN CHESTER: I recognize that they are saying the next most likely place to look would be another 25,000 square kilometres to the north of the existing search area. But no one is actually saying to me as the minister that they definitely know the location of MH-370.

ELIZA BORRELLO: But he described it as highly likely, would that not be good enough to go on, to keep searching underwater?

DARREN CHESTER: It is particularly difficult decision, the trial part of the agreement in July last year involving Malaysia, China and the Australian Government agreed that time we would complete 120,000 square kilometre highest priority search area and suspend the search at that time pending any credible new evidence leading to a specific location and no one within the ATSB or anyone else amongst the experts who have been involved in this extremely difficult search, is saying they know the location of MH-370.

They are simply saying, that is the most likely area that they like to search next if additional resources were provided.

ELIZA BORRELLO: So is it a cost issue, that you can't commit or the three countries don't want to commit to spending the money to search that area to the north?

DARREN CHESTER: This is not primarily about cost at all, it's about a whole range of factors.

We certainly don't want to raise false hope, amongst the next of kin.

We've been searching now for the best part of three years and haven't been successful and we've ruled out the highest priority search area, an 120,000 square kilometre area which has been searched and completed in the last week or so.

For us to go back and do further search would need a higher degree of evidence that would lead us to a more specific location.

Now work is ongoing in terms of data analysis, anymore drift modelling of any degree that comes forward that is of interest to us and some work on the satellite imagery.

So work in ongoing. We haven't given up hope but we certainly are not in a position to extend the search at this stage.

ELIZA BORRELLO: I understand you don't want to give the families false hope but a number of them have said they're very disappointed that the search hasn't continued. How do you justify not searching then, given that?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think the governments of Malaysia, China and Australia are in an almost impossible position in that regard - we're damned if we do and damned if we don't.

If we came to the public and said we wanted to spend another $30 (million), $40 (million) or $50 million on a search in an area we're not sure we're going to find the aircraft, people would criticise us for that and having made the decision to suspend the search, we're open for criticism then as well so it is a difficult decision.

It is one that hasn't been made lightly and we certainly respect and understand that the next of kin of the 239 who were on board MH-370 at the time, I understand why next of kin would be upset.

They are in a position where almost three years now, they haven't had the answers to this most horrible of questions of what happened to their families.

ELIZA BORRELLO: Sheryl Keen is the chairwoman of Air Crash Support Group Australia.

The group represents the families of some of the people on board the missing plane.

Today Ms Keen gave Minister Liow almost 100 letters from the families urging him to search on.

SHERYL KEEN: Reminding him that they were family members who were loved and needed and to please not forsake them and to do all he could to find out what happened to their family.

THOMAS ORITI: That's Sheryl Keen from Air Crash Support Group Australia ending Eliza Borrello's report.