CANBERRA -- Australia's Transport Minister insists he is "damned" if he does and "damned" if he does not suspend the underwater search for missing Malaysian aircraft MH370 after almost three years of exhaustive trying in the vast and inhospitable Indian Ocean.
But Darren Chester said the search for the Boeing 777 will reopen if new credible evidence emerges.
And Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has offered his sympathies, saying the Australian Government "deeply regret the loss and we deeply regret that the plane has not been found."
Turnbull on #MH370: There has never been a search as extensive as this and it adds to the tragedy that the plane has not been found
— Henry Belot (@Henry_Belot) January 17, 2017
Shipwrecks from previous centuries have been found in the 120,000 sq km stretch, while confirmed debris pieces, including a wing flap, have been found washed up on Reunion Island, far from the search zone.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has concluded the aircraft there is a "high degree of certainty" that MH370 is not in the area it has searched.
The families of the missing 239 people on board the aircraft, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, are disappointed and some enraged by the decision to end the search, taken jointly Tuesday by the governments of Australia, Malaysia and China.
Most of the passengers were Chinese or Malaysian and six were Australian.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also expressed his disappointment, especially, he tweeted, if "some experts think there are better places to look".
Fresh ATSB analysis and CSIRO drift modelling of debris have suggested the search has been in the wrong area, pointing northward with a "high probability", but the Transport Minister said it is an "extraordinary aviation mystery" and he insists there is no hard evidence on the plane's location, six weeks out from the anniversary of the disappearance.
"No one has come to me saying we know MH370 is in that 25,000 square kilometres," Chester told ABC Radio.
"I don't think this is an issue you can cover in 140 characters on Twitter. The former Prime Minister is welcome to his opinion."
The Prime Minister said it had been an unprecedented search, conducted with the best possible advice.
"It is a shocking tragedy and we grieve and we deeply regret the loss and we deeply regret that the plane has not been found," Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.
"If new evidence emerged that pointed to another location, then the three nations can consider searching there."
The Minister spoke Tuesday to some of the family representatives before the announcement. He said he share disappointment with them, but "obviously I can't understand their grief".
"This is going to be one of those situations where there is not going to be a perfect answers. In fact, I am damned if I do and I am damned if I don't."
Voice370, a support group for victims' families, has called the decision "irresponsible".
"Commercial planes cannot just be allowed to disappear without a trace," the group said.
"Stopping at this stage is nothing short of irresponsible, and betrays a shocking lack of faith in the data, tools and recommendations of an array of official experts assembled by the authorities themselves."
Danica Weeks, whose husband Paul was on board the plane, has told Fairfax Media the decision was "unacceptable and disgusting".
"I won't accept it. None of us will. They won't get away with this and we'll just keep fighting," she said.
The end of the underwater search had been flagged last year. It has cost upwards of $180 million dollars, but Chester insists cost was not the reason for the suspension.
It's cost three countries $200 million for search for #mh370 - $60 million spent by Aus. Biggest aviation search in history.
— Alice Workman (@workmanalice) January 17, 2017
The Minister wants credible new evidence, saying "we will know it when we see it." He said he does not want to be offering false hope to families.
"While the underwater search effort is suspended, there is still work under way with the ATSB in terms of the debris drift modelling," he said.
"There is still analysis of the satellite imagery available from that time and we are not in position to tell you that there will not be technological breakthrough in the future where we will be able to search in a different way."
Malaysia Airlines said that it remained "hopeful that in the near future" new and significant information would come to light so the missing plane could be found.
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