The Indonesian military on Tuesday called off efforts to recover the wreckage of an AirAsia plane that crashed into the Java Sea last month, after failing to find any more bodies inside the fuselage.
Flight QZ8501 went down on December 28 in stormy weather with 162 people on board, during what was supposed to be a short trip from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
Search and rescue teams failed repeatedly in recent days to lift the main body of the Airbus A320-200, where officials had hoped to find the majority of the victims.
Indonesian rescue personnel load a coffin bearing a body of recovered remains of a victim from the underwater wreckage of the ill-fated AirAsia flight QZ8501 at the airport in Pangkalan Bun. (AFP)
The navy, which has provided much of the personnel and equipment for the rescue effort, said Tuesday it was withdrawing as the badly damaged fuselage was too difficult to lift and no more bodies had been located.
"All of our forces are being pulled out," said Rear Admiral Widodo, a navy official overseeing the search and rescue operation. "We apologise to the families of the victims."
So far just 70 bodies have been recovered, and the national search and rescue agency said it would try to find more victims in smaller-scale operations.
"We will continue to try fulfil the hopes of the victims' relatives, but the operation will not be a large-scale one," the agency's head Bambang Soelistyo told AFP.
Rubber boats carrying divers approach Indonesian Navy ship KRI Banda Aceh during a recovery operation for the victims and the fuselage of AirAsia Flight 8501 on the Java Sea. (AP)
Military spokesman Fuad Basya said that the plane's body was "destroyed".
"It was soaked in sea water for a while so when we lifted it it was torn apart," he said. "We can no longer find any more bodies."
Despite the military's withdrawal from the operation, Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation research firm Endau Analytics, said it would be surprising if authorities did not continue to salvage the aircraft.
"I think it would be very surprising if the salvage was not continued, knowing in fact that it's there," he told AFP.
Part of the wreckage that BASARNAS identified as of the ill-fated AirAsia Flight 8501, is seen in the waters of the Java Sea, Indonesia. (AP)
"I can't think of any previous aircraft incidents where they haven't tried to retrieve everything."
Since Saturday, salvage teams had been using giant inflatable bags to try to raise the fuselage, which is lying in the sea at a depth of around 30 metres (98 feet).
At one point, they managed to lift the main body to the surface for two minutes before a sling holding it snapped. The fuselage then split in two and sank to the seabed.
There was a huge international hunt for the AirAsia jet, involving ships from countries including the United States and China. But following the discovery of the fuselage by a Singaporean vessel, most foreign assistance was pulled out.
The jet's black boxes - the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder - have been recovered, and investigators are analysing them. A preliminary report into the accident should be completed this week.
Indonesian Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan said last week that the plane climbed abnormally fast before stalling and plunging into the sea.
One crash investigator described how the plane's warning alarms were "screaming" in the moments before the crash as the pilots desperately sought to stabilise the aircraft.
Just moments before the plane disappeared off the radar, the pilot had asked to climb to avoid a major storm but was not immediately granted permission due to heavy air traffic.
Indonesia's meteorological agency has said weather could have caused the accident, but only the black boxes will be able to give definitive answers.