More than two weeks after the jet vanished, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed Monday what anguished relatives have increasingly feared – that everyone on board the Beijing-bound Boeing 777 must be dead and the aircraft, which mysteriously went silent and changed course, crashed somewhere in the south Indian Ocean.

“It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean,” he said at a sombre, short news conference late Monday night in Malaysia.

Relatives received the news via text message shortly before the press conference began.

“Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived,” the text message said.

Analysis of the last series of hourly ‘handshakes’ from a communications system – left on but not sending data  – on board the Boeing 777 was last located in the middle of the Indian Ocean west of Perth, Australia, he said in a statement.

“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” he added,

He said Malaysia Airlines has informed the families of passengers of the plane’s fate.

A man was the first to emerge, his body wracked with sobs, his voice whimpering against the grief. Behind him, a gathering wail built up from the room where families gathered at the Lido Hotel in Beijing to hear the prime minister’s announcement.

Grief and anguish emerged in a heartrending procession of wails, tears and screams. Women came over bent over in the agony of loss. One in a blue hoodie walked out of a room reserved for families in silence, both hands clasped to a face wet with tears.

Another woman fell to her knees before a row of watching cameras, her voice hoarse as she shouted: “because of the Communist Party I have only one son.”

She added, with harsh bitterness: “Long live the Communist Party.”

One man vented his anger at the crush of watching media, rushing at a cameraman with his fists, shouting “what the hell are you shooting?” Stretchers were brought in for those overcome by grief; at least two people left were subsequently wheeled out.

Online in China, a nation mourned on social media.

“This is a tough moment, and the rescue should not stop, nor should the quest for the truth. Truth is the best answer for these lives,” one poster wrote. “Today, we do not say goodnight. We only say take care, and quietly pray.”

Meanwhile, a frustrating search for floating debris spotted by satellite but not yet recovered by ships in the wild and remote seas more than 1000 kilometres southwest of Perth, Australia, continued.

If those objects, or others spotted from nearly a dozen long-range patrol aircraft from several nations, prove to be from the big, red-and-white Malaysian Airlines flight 370, then it will only confirm a crash as sea. Backtracking after more than two weeks of drift in complex current and shifting winds to an impact point hundreds – perhaps more than 1,000 kilometres away – may prove impossible.

All 239 passengers and crew must be presumed dead, Mr. Razak said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. It vanished on an overnight flight on March 8; after someone with sophisticated familiarity about the aircraft’s system’s turned off the planes transponder – which sends position, speed, and direction and identification details to air traffic control – and then keyed a reversal of course into the flight management computer.

But the attempt to disappear and go silent didn’t entirely work; a communications system continued to make routine hourly ‘handshakes’ with a satellite high above the Indian Ocean; establishing that the plane flew on for another seven hours – roughly equivalents to the range allowed by the amount of fuel loaded on board for the original flight plan to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

In the seas southwest of Australia, several large objects have been spotted although nothing yet definitively links them to the missing Boeing 777.

A Chinese aircraft, Australian naval ship and an Australian aircraft all reported objects floating in the sea, Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Monday afternoon in Kuala Lumpur.

None could be verified by other searchers, but the Australian ship HMAS Success, “is in the vicinity, and it’s possible the objects could be received within the next few hours, or by tomorrow morning at the latest,” Mr. Hussein said.

The Australian aircraft saw two objects, “one circular and one rectangular,” Mr. Hussein said. The Chinese aircraft saw “two relatively big floating objects with many white smaller ones scattered within a radius of several kilometres,” China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. Mr. Hussein said “two orange objects approximately one metre in length and one white-coloured drum” were also spotted.

In Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Japanese, Australian and U.S. aircraft were all in the search area, and cautioned about how little remains known.

“We don’t know whether any of these objects are from MH370. They could be flotsam. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that we can recover these objects soon, and that they will take us a step closer to resolving this tragic mystery.”

After a routine handoff to air traffic control, roughly 70 minutes after takeoff, nothing further was heard from the flight. No distress call was made.

Attention and resources in the search for the Boeing 777 have shifted from an initial focus north of the Equator to an increasingly narrowed stretch of rough sea in the southern Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from the original flight path.

The Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft spotted two “relatively big” floating objects and several smaller white ones dispersed over several kilometres, the Xinhua news agency said.

Beijing responded cautiously to the latest find. “At present, we cannot yet confirm that the floating objects are connected with the missing plane,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing in Beijing.

China has diverted its icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, toward the location where the debris was spotted.

More than 150 of the passengers on board the missing plane were Chinese.

WASHINGTON and BEIJING — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Mar. 24 2014, 10:57 AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Mar. 24 2014, 2:07 PM EDT