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More ships rush to probe signals in plane search

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Retired Royal Australian Air Force Air Marshall Angus Houston speaks to the media during a press conference about the on-going search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, in Perth, Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014. Houston said that up to 10 military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in the search today of 217,000 square kilometers, 1,700km north west of Perth. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Retired Royal Australian Air Force Air Marshall Angus Houston speaks to the media during a press conference about the on-going search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, in Perth, Australia, Friday, April 4, 2014. Houston said that up to 10 military planes, four civil jets and nine ships will assist in the search today of 217,000 square kilometers, 1,700km north west of Perth. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

In this image taken from video, a member of a Chinese search team uses an instrument to detect electronic pulses while searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, on board the patrol vessel Haixun 01, in the search area in the southern Indian Ocean, Saturday, April 5, 2014. China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported late Saturday that the patrol vessel Haixun 01 had detected a “pulse signal” at 37.5 kilohertz (cycles per second) – the same frequency emitted by flight data recorders aboard the missing plane – in the search area in the southern Indian Ocean. But retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston stressed the two electronic pulses that the Chinese ship reported detecting on Friday and Saturday had not been verified as connected to the missing jet. (AP Photo/CCTV via AP Video)

A woman holding a LED candle offers prayers for passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, April 6, 2014. The head of the multinational search for the missing Malaysia airlines jet said that electronic pulses reportedly picked up by a Chinese ship are an encouraging sign but stresses they are not yet verified. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

A man writes messages for passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 before a mass prayer for them, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, April 6, 2014. The head of the multinational search for the missing Malaysia airlines jet said that electronic pulses reportedly picked up by a Chinese ship are an encouraging sign but stresses they are not yet verified. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

Well-wishes cards for passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 are tied during a mass prayer for the plane, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, April 6, 2014. The head of the multinational search for the missing Malaysia airlines jet said that electronic pulses reportedly picked up by a Chinese ship are an encouraging sign but stresses they are not yet verified. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — Three separate but fleeting sounds from deep in the Indian Ocean offered new hope Sunday in the hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner, and officials rushed to confirm or rule out they were signals from the plane’s black boxes before their beacons fall silent.

The head of the multinational search being conducted off Australia’s west coast confirmed that a Chinese ship had picked up electronic pulsing signals twice in a small patch of the search zone, once on Friday and again on Saturday.

On Sunday, an Australian ship carrying sophisticated deep-sea sound equipment picked up a third signal in in a different part of the massive search area.

“This is an important and encouraging lead, but one which I urge you to treat carefully,” retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search, told reporters in Perth.

He stressed the signals had not been verified as linked to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board.

“We have an acoustic event. The job now is to determine the significance of that event. It does not confirm or deny the presence of the aircraft locator on the bottom of the ocean,” Houston said, referring to each of the three transmissions.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported late Saturday that the patrol vessel Haixun 01 on Friday detected a “pulse signal” at 37.5 kilohertz (cycles per second) — the same frequency emitted by flight data recorders aboard the missing plane — in the southern Indian Ocean.

Houston confirmed the report, and said that the Haixun 01 detected a signal again on Saturday within 2 kilometers (1.4 miles) of the original signal, for 90 seconds. He said that China also reported seeing white objects floating in the sea in the area.

Houston said the British navy’s HMS Echo, which is fitted with sophisticated sound locating equipment, was moving immediately to the area where the signals were picked up, and would be there in the next day or two.

The Australian navy’s Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the U.S. Navy, will also head there, but would first investigate the sound it picked up in its current region, about 300 nautical miles (555 kilometers) away, he said.

He said Australian air force assets were also being deployed on Sunday into the Haixun 01′s area to try to confirm or discount the signals relevance to the search.

After weeks of fruitless looking, the multinational search team is racing against time to find the sound-emitting beacons and cockpit voice recorders that could help unravel the mystery of the plane. The beacons in the black boxes emit “pings” so they can be more easily found, but the batteries only last for about a month.

Investigators believe Flight 370 veered way off course and came down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, though they have not been able to explain why it did so.

The Chinese crew reportedly picked up the signals using a hand-held sonar device called a hydrophone dangled over the side of

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