Perth (Australia) (AFP) - Thunderstorms and gale-force winds threatened to impede a frantic international search Thursday for wreckage from Flight MH370 after satellite images of more than 100 floating objects sparked fresh hopes of a breakthrough.
Malaysia said the imagery taken in recent days by a French satellite showed "122 potential objects" in the remote southern Indian Ocean, although nothing has yet been pulled from the treacherous seas despite a multinational recovery operation.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has cautioned that it was impossible to determine whether the objects were related to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 which crashed on March 8 with 239 people aboard after mysteriously disappearing.
But the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search some 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, said they were in an area authorities have pinpointed as a potential crash zone.
"Positions in the satellite information released by Malaysia Remote Sensing Agency were within Wednesday’s search area," it said as a fleet of planes prepared to head for the search zone once again before the weather worsens.
Six military planes from Australia, Japan and the United States will fly sorties throughout the day, along with five civil aircraft, AMSA said, in an increasingly frantic hunt for clues to exactly what happened.
The plane deviated inexplicably off its intended course between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, flying thousands of kilometres in the wrong direction, before plunging into the sea. Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board.
Five ships are also in the search zone, including Australia's HMAS Success and Chinese vessels Xue Long, Kuulunshan, Haikon and Qiandaohu.
But they are operating in a wild expanse of ocean described by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as "close to nowhere as it's possible to be" where gale-force winds and towering waves are routinely whipped up.
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology warned the weather was expected to deteriorate later Thursday.
"Potentially thunderstorms down there as well as winds picking up, and they could get to gale force conditions," said bureau spokesman Neil Bennett.
-- Lawyers fire first salvo -
The new images, provided by European aerospace giant Airbus and depicting some objects as long as 23 metres (75 feet), came as US lawyers fired the first salvo in an expected barrage of lawsuits on behalf of grieving families.
Seeking closure, anguished families of those aboard are desperately awaiting hard evidence, which the aviation industry hopes can also provide clues to what caused one of aviation's greatest mysteries.
But as the search continued, US law firm Ribbeck Law Chartered International said it was getting the ball rolling on potentially "multi-million dollar" lawsuits against Malaysia Airlines and Boeing.
"We are going to be filing the lawsuits for millions of dollars per each passenger based on prior cases that we have done involving crashes like this one," the firm's head of aviation litigation, Monica Kelly, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
A separate statement by the firm, which filed an initial court petition in the US state of Illinois on Tuesday, said the two companies "are responsible for the disaster of Flight MH370".
The airline declined detailed comment.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that satellite data indicated the plane plunged into the sea in a region off western Australia, possibly after running out of fuel.
- Relatives seek closure -
MH370 relatives have endured more than a fortnight of agonising uncertainty.
Two-thirds of the passengers were from China, and relatives there have criticised Malaysia in acid terms, accusing the government and airline of a cover-up and botching the response.
Scores of relatives protested outside Malaysia's embassy in Beijing on Tuesday and China kept up the pressure, with Premier Li Keqiang urging Malaysia Wednesday to involve "more Chinese experts" in the investigation, according to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
While Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted, other scenarios include a hijacking, pilot sabotage or a crisis that incapacitated the crew and left the plane to fly on auto-pilot until it ran out of fuel.
Hishammuddin said Razak met Wednesday with Zhang Yesui, a Chinese vice foreign minister sent to Kuala Lumpur over the crisis, and provided him with a full update on the latest information.
Hishammuddin hit back at criticism of Malaysia's handling of the crisis, saying "I think history will judge us well."
Authorities hope to retrieve the "black box" and precious flight data, believing it could hold clues to what happened.
Australian Vice Admiral Ray Griggs said a specialised US Navy black box locator device had arrived in Perth and could be taken to the search area within days.
The clock is ticking, with the battery that powers its locator signal expected to run out in two weeks. - AFP