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World ‘It can’t end like this’: After almost three years, officials end search for MH370

This file picture taken on March 8, 2016 shows a man walking in front of a mural of missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane in a back-alley in Shah Alam

MANAN VATSYAYANAMANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

More than 1,000 days after a Malaysia Airlines Boeing-777 vanished from radar, the most expensive search in aviation history has been called off without finding a trace of the aircraft.

For years, vessels equipped with cutting-edge technology scoured the sea bottom in some of the world's most isolated and dangerous ocean waters, methodically criss-crossing an area more than twice the size of Nova Scotia to hunt for clues to the missing jetliner's fate.

But they failed to shed any light on the mystery around flight MH370, or what happened to the 239 people on board. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing took off March 8, 2014, but never arrived at its destination.

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On Tuesday, officials ended the $160-million (U.S.) underwater search, which began in October, 2014.

"Despite every effort using the best science available," the three countries in charge of the operation, Malaysia, Australia and China, said in a joint statement, "… unfortunately, the search has not been able to locate the aircraft."

Investigators have confirmed that three pieces of the aircraft – a wing fragment, a flaperon and an outboard wing flap – have washed up on and near the eastern shore of Africa.

But they were found in such disparate locations that they offered scant clues as to their origin.

An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report late last year recommended a new 25,000-square-kilometre area as having "the highest probability of containing the wreckage of the aircraft," based on a new analysis of aircraft satellite "pings," and simulations of the plane and its debris.

On Tuesday, however, officials said no to restarting the search elsewhere, after their fruitless efforts in a 120,000-square-kilometre swath of the southern Indian Ocean. That area had been identified as the most promising based on calculations derived from satellite telemetry – an imprecise method, since the plane was not broadcasting its location.

"Whilst combined scientific studies have continued to refine areas of probability, to date no new information has been discovered to determine the specific location of the aircraft," the officials said in their statement.

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For the families of those who disappeared, the end of the search ensures the uncertainty will remain.

Accustomed to mistrusting what they are told by government, many Chinese relatives of those onboard refuse to believe their husbands, children, parents and siblings have died.

On many days, dozens of family members still gather at the Beijing office of Malaysia Airlines. Among them is Dai Shuqin, who had five relatives onboard MH370 and has, like many others, refused to sign a compensation agreement that might discharge either the airline or governments of responsibility for her loved ones.

"I'm very angry," she said. "How can they explain this to the world? At a time of such high-tech science, a big plane just disappeared?"

Zhang Meiling, whose daughter Bai Xiaomo was one of two Canadians on MH370, continues to doubt the judgment of officials who chose the ocean search area.

They failed, she said Tuesday, because "the plane is not in the sea. I hope the Chinese and Malaysian governments stop lying to the families and return the passengers home."

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Ms. Zhang faulted her own government, too, for abandoning the families of the 152 Chinese people on-board the plane. In 2015, President Xi Jinping said of the missing, "We have not forgotten them. We will continue to make all possible efforts to find them."

Ending the search, she said, feels like a broken promise.

"It can't end like this."

Without a definitive answer as to what happened, conspiracy theories have flourished. Some families believe government officials have secreted the passengers at a hotel, where they are being held for sale. Another elaborate analysis that became popular in 2015 posited that MH370 was flown to a spaceport in Kazakhstan operated by Russia.

More recently, attention has turned to Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, the flight's pilot, whose home flight simulator included a route plotted to the southern Indian Ocean weeks before MH370 vanished.

Last summer, Malaysian police said they had not ruled out pilot suicide as a potential reason for the flight's disappearance, although national transport minister Liow Tiong Lai later played down the idea. "There is still no evidence to confirm that Captain Zaharie deliberately flew the plane into the Indian Ocean," he said in August.

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On Tuesday, Voice370, a family support group, said calling off the search has done a disservice to global aviation safety.

Commercial aircraft "cannot be allowed to just disappear without a trace," the group wrote in a statement posted to its Facebook page. "We appeal to Malaysia, China and Australia to reconsider."

With reporting by Yu Mei

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