Naval vessels carrying sophisticated deep-sea black box detectors are rushing to the site of an "important and encouraging" lead in the hunt for the missing Malaysian airliner.

But the head of the multinational search said while it was an "encouraging" lead it should be treated carefully.

Retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston stressed the two electronic pulses that a Chinese ship reported detecting on Friday and Saturday had not been verified as connected to the missing jet. China's official Xinhua News Agency reported late on 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. Mr Houston confirmed the report, and said Haixun 01 had detected a signal again yesterday within 1.4 miles of the original signal, for a period of 90 seconds. He said China also reported seeing white objects floating in the sea in the area. "This is an important and encouraging lead, but one which I urge you to treat carefully," he told reporters in Perth.

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HMS Echo, which is fitted with sophisticated sound locating equipment, is moving to the area where the Haixun 01 detected the signals.