FILE PHOTO - Hand-written notes on how a crew member should report the sighting of debris in the southern Indian Ocean is pictured on a window aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370
By Tom Westbrook and Rozanna Latiff
SYDNEY/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Australia's main scientific agency said on Wednesday it believed with "unprecedented precision and certainty" that a missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft crashed into the sea northeast of an area scoured in a fruitless two-year underwater search.
The agency's assertion is based on satellite pictures taken two weeks after Flight MH370 went missing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, on a flight to Beijing from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
But the Australian government rejected the conclusion of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), issued in a report on Wednesday, saying it was not specific enough.
The disappearance of the Boeing 777 has become one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries. It is thought to have been diverted thousands of miles off course out over the southern Indian Ocean before crashing off the coast of Western Australia.
Australia, Malaysia and China called off a A$200 million ($160 million), two-year search for the plane in January after finding nothing, despite the protests of families of those onboard.
The CSIRO has previously raised doubts about the main 120,000-sq-km underwater search zone, saying it believed the plane went down to the north of it.
Its latest assertion was its most insistent yet and was based on a review of satellite images provided by the French military intelligence service and France's national space agency, CNES, which showed 70 pieces of debris with a dozen of those "probably" man-made.
"We think it is possible to identify a most-likely location of the aircraft, with unprecedented precision and certainty," the CSIRO said.
CSIRO oceanographer and the report's lead author, David Griffin, told Reuters by telephone that if the debris spotted in the pictures was authentic, then it supported previous ocean-drift analysis pointing to a crash zone just to the north of the area that was most thoroughly searched.
"It all fits together so perfectly, the only thing missing is proof that those actually are pieces of plane," Griffin said.
Australia has not ruled out resuming the search for the airliner but has said that would depend on finding credible evidence about the plane's whereabouts.
Australian transport minister Darren Chester said the new analysis "does not provide new evidence leading to a specific location of MH370".
Malaysia's deputy transport minister Aziz Kaprawi declined to comment on the agency's report, saying that he was awaiting further information from Australian authorities.
But he said Malaysia has not given up on the search and it had called for a meeting with Australian and Chinese authorities to discuss an offer from a private seabed exploration firm, Ocean Infinity, to resume the search.
"No decision has been made but we are definitely considering a new search. We will seek input from our counterparts," he told Reuters.
Malaysia said this month Ocean Infinity had offered to search for free, and would seek payment only if the aircraft was found. A company spokesman declined to comment.
The company says on its website it has the world's most advanced fleet of autonomous underwater vehicles for seabed mapping, survey and search.
Australia and Malaysia earlier rejected investigators' recommendations to extend the hunt by 25,000 sq km (9,653 square miles) north of the original search area, saying the location identified was too imprecise.
Investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off MH370's transponder before diverting it over the Indian Ocean.
Various pieces of debris have been collected from Indian Ocean islands and Africa's east coast and at least three of them have been confirmed as coming from the missing plane.
CSIRO said some of objects spotted in the pictures were "comparable with some of the debris items that have washed up on African beaches".
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY and Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR.; Editing by Robert Birsel)