The search for the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared more than two years ago with hundreds aboard will be suspended if the aircraft isn't found in the shrinking current search area, officials announced Friday.
Ministers from the three countries leading the effort — Australia, Malaysia and China — met in Malaysia and agreed to suspend the hunt for the plane once the 46,000-square-mile area in the Indian Ocean has been searched. Less than 4,000 square miles remain to be scoured.
Resuming the search would only be considered if "credible new information" emerges to pinpoint the specific location of the aircraft, according to a joint statement from the ministers.
"The suspension does not mean the termination of the search," the joint statement reads. "Ministers reiterated that the aspiration to locate MH370 has not been abandoned."
Still, the announcement signals a likely end to attempts to solve the aviation mystery that began March 8, 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from radar as it traveled between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. It is thought to have crashed in the Indian Ocean.
While ministers emphasized Friday that the search isn't officially over, they acknowledged that "the likelihood of finding the aircraft is fading."
Relatives of some of the 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are skeptical that the search would ever resume and called for it to continue.
"We don't want the suspension to be just a way to let everyone calm down and slowly forget about it," Grace Subathirai Nathan, a Malaysian whose mother was on the flight, told the Associated Press. "We want them to be doing something in the interim to look for new information."
Dai Shuqin is a Beijing resident who had five relatives on the plane and told the New York Times that "we've known this is coming, and I thought I was prepared, but I still feel very frustrated."
“Suspend the search, to me, means end the search,” she told the Times. “There’s no difference. There was no convincing and solid evidence in the past 867 days, and that’s even with the search. So what can we hope for if they suspend the search now? Nothing, nothing at all. That’s it. This is it.”
"I will never agree with the decision to suspend the search," Zhang Qian, whose wife was on the plane, told AP. "We will definitely gather to protest it and I have lost confidence in the Malaysian government."
A day before Friday's meeting, some relatives called on nations to provide more financial assistance for the search, which has thus far cost $135 million, Reuters reported.
Jacquita Gonzales, the wife of MH370 steward Patrick Gomes, said China and Malaysia had not contributed enough to the search effort, which is coordinated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
"China, you could do more. I'm sorry for being so frank but you have the most at stake here," she said at a news conference. Most of the passengers aboard MH370 were Chinese nationals.
"(Malaysia), you need to do your bit and not just say 'I'm so sorry, we're short of funds, there's nowhere else to search,' " Gonzales said.
K.S. Narendran, whose wife was a passenger on MH370, called on the Malaysian government to seek help in securing funding.
"This country and its leadership have wealthy friends. And I suppose therefore, there really should be no argument for a paucity of funds," he said.
Some family members said they understood the decision by officials. Australian Jeanette Maguire, who had family aboard, told AP that the announcement was "very difficult to accept" but she knows more information is needed "because it's costing an absolute fortune."
K.S. Narenderan, whose wife was on the flight, told AP he still felt encouraged.
"Fearing the worst, we now have something to hang on to,” he told AP. “I read into it a commitment to stay engaged in the search and to hold themselves accountable to pursue the truth.”
Ten months after MH370 vanished, officials ruled the disappearance an accident, ruling out the possibility of survivors.
The first piece of confirmed Flight 370 wreckage to surface was a wing flap that washed up on La Reunion, an island off the coast of Madagascar, a year ago.
On Friday, Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester said debris will still be inspected, but "future searches must have a high level of success to justify raising hopes of loved ones," AP reported.