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Deep divisions between China and Malaysia over the hunt for flight MH370 boiled over into a public war of words Tuesday when a minister accused Beijing of wasting investigators’ time.
Malaysia’s acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein made the rebuke hours after China angrily demanded evidence that the Boeing 777 had crashed.
The spat erupted after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, citing new satellite data, said on Monday that Flight MH370 had crashed thousands of miles away in the southern Indian Ocean.
That prompted an angry reaction in China, where relatives of missing passengers marched on Malaysia’s embassy early Tuesday - some of them throwing bottles of water at the building, according to a Reuters report.
"We remind you that we received satellite data from China involving sightings in the South China Sea which made us distract ourselves."
Against this background of mistrust, Beijing’s Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng said China wanted to know exactly what information had led Najib to publicly announce that the plane was lost in the Indian Ocean.
At Tuesday’s daily news briefing in Kuala Lumpur, Hishammuddin appeared to show his frustration when asked about China’s doubts, remarking that a Chinese lead early in the investigation had proved false.
"We remind you that we received satellite data from China involving sightings in the South China Sea which made us distract ourselves … to search areas which we've already searched … and it was found to be negative," he told reporters.
That was an apparent reference to the publication on March 9 by a Chinese government agency of satellite pictures showing three floating objects in the South China Sea – the area where the jet last made positive contact with air traffic controllers.
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Most of the passengers on the doomed airliner – which had been en route to Beijing when it disappeared more than two weeks ago – were Chinese.
Many of the grief-stricken families in China have never accepted investigators’ theories that the plane flew thousands of miles off course, and they have accused investigators of “delays and deception.” On Saturday many family members shouted insults at Malaysia's ambassador to China.
Some are convinced their relatives are still alive and are being held hostage amid secret negotiations.
The diplomatic rift could have long-term economic and political implications for both countries.
An online Sina poll in China, reported by the Wall Street Journal Tuesday, found that 77 percent of more than 38,400 respondents said the MH370 incident had influenced whether they’d be likely to travel to Malaysia in the future. China currently accounts for 12 percent of tourists to Malaysia and for six percent of Malaysia’s tourism income, the WSJ said.
"We used to have 30 to 40 customers a month... Now there is no one asking about this route or booking."
Eleven Chinese travel agents told Reuters that bookings between China and Malaysia had fallen severely, and that many people have canceled their trips amid anger at the perceived lack of information provided by the Malaysian government to passengers' families.
"We used to have 30 to 40 customers a month for group tours to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Now there is no one asking about this route or booking," a travel agent surnamed Chen told Reuters by telephone.
"Tourists don't even consider going there. Many also have a negative impression of the country now," said Chen with Comfort Travel, in the southern city of Guangzhou, which focuses heavily on Southeast Asia tours.
Reuters contributed to this report.