BEIJING - Frustrated family members of the Chinese passengers aboard missing flight MH370 walked out of a briefing by Malaysian officials Friday, leaving the panel to stare at ranks of empty chairs while a single relatives' representative berated them.
With the search on its 20th day, hundreds of family members of the 153 Chinese passengers stood up about an hour into a briefing at Beijing's Lido Hotel and calmly filed out of the room, in a surreal scene that underscored the simmering tensions between the relatives and Malaysian authorities.
The man who led them in protest - a representative of the families who gave only his surname, Jiang - took the microphone as soon as officials opened the floor for questions following their presentation on the latest details of the search effort.
Jiang, who was wearing a white MH370 T-shirt underneath a tan blazer, turned to the assembled relatives and asked them whether they were satisfied with what they have heard from officials so far.
"No!" the family members responded in unison.
He led them in leaving the hall, as cameras rolled and the panel of Malaysian officials wordlessly looked on. Several dozen uniformed police officers stood on the sides of the room, watching the scene unfold.
Once the family members had left, Jiang returned and took a seat in the front row, directly in front of the officials.
"You have seen from the scene today that the next of kin are united," he declared. "Chinese people are united. The facts which you have been concealing - or trying to conceal - will ultimately see the light of day. There will certainly be people who receive their due punishment as a result of this."
'We are trying our best'
Ackbal Abdul Samad, commander of the Malaysian Air Force operations, responded by defending the search operation and maintaining that the authorities were working their hardest.
"How can you move forward from here?" he asked. "We are trying our best. We are trying our best."
With a twinge of exasperation in his voice, he added: "We have got nothing to hide."
The back-and-forth soon ended, Jiang left the hall and the panel of Malaysian officials sat quietly, staring out at the rows of empty seats in the ballroom.
The bizarre scene was in dramatic contrast to irate relatives scuffling with security personnel outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, after authorities allowed a rare protest march in the capital.
After several minutes, a reporter broke the silence to ask the officials what they were waiting for.
Jiang then returned and announced that the family members were to hold a private meeting in the hall - no journalists or officials allowed.
The panel remained silent for another moment. Relatives began flooding back into the room. Then Samad spoke up.
"Seems we'll take a leave," he said. "And then we'll see what's next."