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Authorities are confident that a series of underwater signals detected in a remote patch of the Indian Ocean are coming from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, Australia’s prime minister has said.

Speaking in Shanghai, China, Tony Abbott said crews had significantly narrowed down the search to within “some kilometres” in their hunt for the source of pings, first heard on Saturday.

“It’s been very much narrowed down because we’ve now had a series of detections, some for quite a long period of time,” Mr Abbott said.

“Nevertheless, we’re getting to the stage where the signal from what we are very confident is the black box is starting to fade. We are hoping to get as much information as we can before the signal finally expires.”

The Boeing 777’s black boxes, or flight data and cockpit voice recorders, could help solve the mystery of why Flight 370 vanished on March 8 on a trip from Malaysia to China.

But the batteries only last about a month – and it has been more than a month since the plane disappeared.

Australian ship Ocean Shield first picked up two underwater sounds on Saturday consistent with the pings emitted by the flight recorders. The ship’s equipment detected two more sounds on Tuesday.

“We are confident that we know the position of the black box flight recorder to within some kilometres, but confidence in the approximate position of the black box is not the same as recovering wreckage from almost 4.5km beneath the sea or finally determining all that happened on that flight,” Mr Abbott said.

Sonar buoys are being dropped by the Australian air force to listen in the search zone. Each buoy is dangling a hydrophone listening device below the surface.