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Police end search for missing aircraft and footballer Emiliano Sala

The search for a missing aircraft that was carrying Cardiff footballer Emiliano Sala has been brought to an end by police, who say the chances of finding survivors are now "extremely remote."

The aircraft, which was taking Sala from Nantes, France, to Cardiff, went missing from radar on Monday evening, prompting a search and rescue operation based in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. The plane was taking Sala from Nantes, the home of his former club, to the city of his new team, Cardiff City, which signed Sala on Saturday.

In a statement, Guernsey harbour master David Barker said next of kin had been informed of the decision to end the search.

"We reviewed all the information available to us, as well as knowing what emergency equipment was on board, and have taken the difficult decision to end the search," he said.

"The chances of survival at this stage are extremely remote. Next of kin have been informed of this development and my thoughts go out to the families of the pilot and passenger at this most difficult of times."

Sala's sister, Romina Sala, pleaded for the search to resume, telling reporters she believes the individuals on board are still alive.

"I'm very confused. All I want is that they find my brother, they find the pilot ... that they put themselves in our shoes," she said. "I feel it in me that they are alive, that they are well, they are waiting for us.

"I ask you please to not stop looking for them. Please do not stop, I thank you, I thank everyone. ... They are alive."

Nantes echoed Romina Sala's calls to continue the search in a message posted on their Twitter account.

"FC Nantes has learnt that the search for the missing plane was called off.

"This search mustn't stop, @GuernseyPolice

"The club and its supporters strongly ask for the search to find @EmilianoSala1 to go on, for his family and his near relatives. Together for Emi !," the message read.

Police had suspended their latest efforts to locate the missing aircraft for a second successive night on Wednesday, with any hope of finding the passengers alive rapidly fading.

The final stage of the search and rescue operation had focused on coastal areas around the Channel Islands, a Guernsey police statement said.

Police previously confirmed the name of the missing pilot as David Ibbotson on Wednesday and said they were reviewing satellite imagery and mobile phone data as part of the search.

Cardiff owner Vincent Tan said in a statement that everyone at the club would continue to pray for Sala, Ibbotson and their families.

"Monday evening's news shook everyone at Cardiff City FC to the core," he said. "We were looking forward to providing Emiliano with the next step in his life and career.

"Those who met Emiliano described a good-natured and humble young man who was eager to impress in the Premier League. The response from the football community has been truly touching and we place on record our sincere thanks to those who have sent messages of support."

Sala's father, Horacio Sala, addressed media gathered outside the family home in Progreso, Argentina, on Wednesday.

"I don't know what to think. ... The hours pass and I am just beginning to think the worst," he said. "We were in touch on Sunday. He was so happy that he was going there, to an even bigger club."

The search for Sala

Both French and British maritime authorities began searching for the missing single-engine Piper Malibu on Tuesday, with rescue aircraft and boats scouring more than 1,000 square miles of sea.

Police said a number of floating objects had been spotted in the water, but they could not confirm whether they were debris from the missing aircraft.

"We have found no signs of those on board. If they did land on the water, the chances of survival are at this stage, unfortunately, slim," a statement released Tuesday evening read.

The search continued Wednesday with three planes and a helicopter involved, but again nothing was spotted in relation to the missing plane.

John Fitzgerald, Chief Officer of Channel Island Air Search, said on Sky Sports News that he believes the aircraft broke apart upon hitting the water. But in a message to ESPN FC he echoed the Guernsey police statement that the debris found could not yet be confirmed as parts of Sala's plane. 

"Debris was seen from the aircraft west of Alderney and the lifeboat has been sent to check this out, but at the moment we can't confirm that these are parts from the aircraft until they have been collected and identified," Fitzgerald told ESPN FC.

Prayers from Cardiff and Nantes

Sala, 28, an Argentine striker who had just signed with Cardiff City for £18 million, was flying from Nantes when the plane lost radar contact off Guernsey late on Monday.

Cardiff called off training upon hearing the news on Tuesday, and club CEO Ken Choo said: "We were very shocked upon hearing the news that the plane had gone missing. We expected Emiliano to arrive last night into Cardiff and today was due to be his first day with the team.

"Our owner, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, and chairman, Mehmet Dalman, are all very distressed about the situation. All of us at Cardiff City FC would like to thank our fans and the entire footballing family for their support at this difficult time.

"We continue to pray for positive news."

Nantes' French Cup last-32 game against Entente Sannois-Saint Gratien, originally set for Wednesday, was postponed until Sunday.

"I'm thinking of his friends, his family. I'm still hopeful," Nantes president Waldemar Kita said. "He's a fighter. It's not over. He's perhaps somewhere. While waiting for news that we hope will be positive, we're very touched by all the support we have received since this morning."

Cardiff's next Premier League game is at Arsenal on Tuesday, but Dalman said there are no plans at present to rearrange the match.

"I would be very surprised if there's any change to the schedule," Dalman said.

Nantes fans held a vigil at the Place Royale in Nantes as a mark of support. 

Sala tweeted his farewell to Nantes on Monday, along with a picture with his former colleagues.

Sala first arrived in France in 2010 when his potential was spotted by Bordeaux, who had him on their books for five years. He spent three spells out on loan, including half a season at Caen that convinced Nantes to sign him in the summer of 2015. He scored 36 times in 89 top-flight games for Les Canaris, including 12 this season, before signing with Cardiff.

Information from Reuters, The Associated Press, Ian Holyman and Aramide Oladipo was used in this report.

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