MAKASSAR, Indonesia (Reuters) - A U.S. navy ship is set to join on Tuesday the search for an Indonesian airliner with 102 people on board missing for the past eight days, with the hunt focusing on a large metal object detected deep on the sea bed.
The object was discovered on Monday by Indonesian ships with sonar technology about 1,000 metres under the ocean north of Mamuju in West Sulawesi province.
There was no immediate confirmation that it was the Adam Air Boeing 737-400 that vanished in bad weather on Jan. 1.
"It is not yet confirmed. Today there will be an American ship that we will send to the spot to find out more on it," First Air Marshal Eddy Suyanto, the Makassar air base commander heading the search, told Reuters.
He later said the USNS Mary Sears, an oceanographic survey ship capable of deep sea surveys, would reach the waters near Mamuju at 6 p.m. local time (1000 GMT) but he could not predict how long it would take to reach a conclusion on the object.
The Indonesian navy was also sending at least four vessels to the scene, including one with a mini-submarine for undersea observation.
Indonesian navy chief Admiral Slamet Soebijanto told Radio Elshinta local equipment so far had not been able to identify the object and the mini-submarine was only able to reach up to a depth of 1,000 metres.
"In order to further ascertain a discovery, we need special equipment like mini-submarines owned by Japan, the U.S. or Russia which can go deeper into the sea," he said.
The search, which has involved naval ships, military planes and thousands of troops and police on the ground, is being coordinated from Makassar, Sulawesi island's biggest city 1,400 km east of Jakarta.
Indonesian officials will be cautious in announcing any discovery after erroneously saying the plane had been spotted in the mountains of Sulawesi on Jan. 2 when accounts from local villagers were relayed unchecked to the highest authorities.
Besides Sulawesi's western coast, the search covers the Toraja highlands in the centre of the island and an area south of the North Sulawesi provincial capital of Manado, where the plane was headed when it disappeared from radar screens.
The plane vanished less than three days after a ferry with more than 600 aboard capsized and sank off Java.
Fourteen people were rescued on Sunday after drifting hundreds of miles on a life raft for nine days, bringing the total number of survivors to at least 248.
Many more were still unaccounted for and the Senopati Nusantara ferry had also yet to be found.
A spokesman for the navy's Eastern fleet said most survivors were passengers who had stayed on deck, not inside cabins.
"They could run and swim faster than the first class passengers. The incident was around midnight when most passengers were asleep, thus they may be trapped at the bottom of the sea," Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Syaiful said.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called for an investigation into what went wrong in both cases as well as a general probe into the state of Indonesia's transport system.
(With additional reporting by Mita Valina Liem and Muara Makarim in Jakarta)
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