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Long hunt for missing jet looms as pings go silent

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A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon takes off from Perth Airport en route to rejoin the ongoing search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, April 13, 2014. Military planes and ships from seven nations continue to scourer the Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia for Flight 370 in one of the largest maritime multi-nation searches in history. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon takes off from Perth Airport en route to rejoin the ongoing search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, April 13, 2014. Military planes and ships from seven nations continue to scourer the Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia for Flight 370 in one of the largest maritime multi-nation searches in history. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon takes off from Perth Airport en route to rejoin the ongoing search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, April 13, 2014. Military planes and ships from seven nations continue to scour the Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia for Flight 370 in one of the largest maritime multi-nation searches in history. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks during a press conference at a hotel in Beijing, China Saturday, April 12, 2014. Abbott told Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting on Friday that he was confident signals heard by an Australian ship towing a U.S. Navy device that detects flight recorder pings are coming from the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Officials believe the plane flew off course for an unknown reason and went down in the southern Indian Ocean off the west coast of Australia. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

In this map provided on Saturday, April 12, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. With no new underwater signals detected, the search for the missing Malaysian passenger jet resumed Saturday in a race against time to find its dying black boxes five weeks after families first learned their loved ones never arrived at their destination. (AP Photo/Joint Agency Coordination Centre) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

A Chinese Ilyushin IL-76s aircraft taxies past another at Perth Airport, Australia, after returning from ongoing search operations for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Saturday, April 12, 2014. With no new underwater signals detected, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Saturday that the massive search for the Malaysian jet would likely continue “for a long time” as electronic transmissions from the dying black boxes were fading fast. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, Pool)

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — After a week of optimism over four underwater signals believed to be coming from the missing Malaysian plane, the sea has gone quiet and Australia’s leader is warning that the massive search will likely be long.

No new electronic pings have been heard since April 8, and the batteries powering the locator beacons on the jet’s black box recorders may already be dead. They only last about a month, and that window has already passed. Once officials are confident no more sounds will be heard, a robotic submersible will be sent down to slowly scour for wreckage across a vast area in extremely deep water.

“No one should underestimate the difficulties of the task still ahead of us,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in Beijing on Saturday, the last day of his China trip.

Abbott appeared to couch his comments from a day earlier, when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to brief him on the search for the Malaysia Airlines flight, which was carrying 239 people — most of them Chinese — when it disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing.

After analyzing satellite data, officials believe the plane flew off course for an unknown reason and went down in the southern Indian Ocean off Australia’s west coast.

Abbott expressed confidence that the signals heard by an Australian ship, which is towing a U.S. Navy device that listens for flight recorder pings, were coming from the missing Boeing 777’s black boxes. But he said the fading batteries were making the job much harder. Recovering the plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders is essential for investigators to try to piece together what happened to Flight 370.

“There’s still a lot more work to be done and I don’t want anyone to think that we are certain of success, or that success, should it come, is going to happen in the next week or even month. There’s a lot of difficulty and a lot of uncertainty left in this,” he said.

In Malaysia, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Saturday refuted a front-page report in a local newspaper, the New Strait Times, that a signal from the mobile phone of co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid was picked up by a telecommunications tower near the Malaysian city of Penang shortly before the plane disappeared from radar. The newspaper report said the signal ended abruptly before contact was established.

Hishammuddin, who is also the acting transport minister, told the Malaysian national news agency Bernama that he should have been aware of the phone call earlier, but that wasn’t the case.

“I cannot comment (on the newspaper report) because if it is true, we would have known about it much earlier,” Hishammuddin said after praying at a mosque in southern Jofor state, according to Bernama.

He added that it was irresponsible for anyone to take the opportunity to make “baseless” reports.

Four sounds heard April 5 and April 8 by the Australian ship Ocean Shield, which was towing the ping locator, were determined to be consistent with signals emitted from the two black boxes.

“Given that the signal from the black box is rapidly fading, what we are now doing is trying to get as many detections as we can so that

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