PERTH, Australia: A Malaysian official met Sunday with relatives of passengers who were aboard the missing jetliner and discussed ways of providing them with financial assistance, as an unmanned submarine continued to search for any signs of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainuddin met with the passengers' relatives in Kuala Lumpur to talk about where to go next. Financial assistance was discussed and family members were urged to submit a plan for consideration. He declined to elaborate further, but said a fund could possibly be set up by the government or Malaysia Airlines.
"We realize this is an excruciating time for the families of those on board," said Zainuddin, who heads a committee overseeing the needs of the next of kin. "No words can describe the pain they must be going through. We understand the desperate need for information on behalf of the families and those watching around the world."
He added that he would soon visit Beijing to shore up bilateral relations between Malaysia and China. Two-thirds of the missing plane's 227 passengers were Chinese, and many of their family members have been angered by Malaysia's handling of the investigation, with some accusing the government of lying, incompetence or participating in an outright cover-up.
After nearly a week of sweeping the bottom of the ocean with sonar, the unmanned sub began its eighth mission on Sunday. The yellow device has already covered about half of its focused search area, but has yet to uncover any clues that could shed light on the mysterious disappearance of the plane more than six weeks ago.
The U.S. Navy's Bluefin 21 has journeyed beyond its recommended depth of 4 1/2 kilometers to comb the silt-covered seabed off the coast of western Australia. Its search area forms a 10-kilometer radius around the location of an underwater signal that was believed to have come from the aircraft's black boxes. The search center said the sonar scan of the seafloor in that area was expected to be completed sometime next week.
On Saturday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein stressed the importance of the weekend submarine missions in the southern Indian Ocean, but stressed that even if no debris is recovered, the scope of the search may be broadened or other assets may be used.
Meanwhile on Sunday, up to 11 aircraft and 12 ships continued to scan the ocean surface for debris from the Boeing 777, which disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Radar and satellite data show the jet mysteriously veered far off course for unknown reasons and would have run out of fuel in the remote section of the southern Indian Ocean where the search has been focused. Not one piece of debris has been recovered since the massive multinational hunt began.
There have been numerous leads, but all have turned out to be false. The most promising development came when four underwater signals were detected April 5 and 8. The sounds were consistent with pings that would have been emanating from the plane's flight data and cockpit recorders' beacons before their batteries died.
The underwater operation is being complicated by the depth of the largely unexplored silt-covered sea floor. The unmanned submarine has gone beyond its recommended depth, according to the U.S. 7th Fleet. That could risk the equipment, but it is being closely monitored.
The search coordination center has said the hunt for floating debris on the surface will continue for at least the next few days, even though the Australian head of the search effort, Angus Houston, had earlier said it was expected to end sooner.
On Sunday, the visual surface search was to cover an estimated 48,507 square kilometers of sea.