Saint-André (France) (AFP) - Plane debris that washed up on an Indian Ocean island is from a Boeing 777, Malaysian authorities said Friday, making it almost certainly the first piece of wreckage recovered from missing flight MH370.
If confirmed by analysis of the wing part -- which was being flown to Paris on Friday night from the French island of La Reunion -- the discovery would mark the first breakthrough in a case that has baffled aviation experts for 16 months.
The Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared on March 8, 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board.
"I believe that we are moving closer to solving the mystery of MH370. This could be the convincing evidence that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean," Malaysia's deputy transport minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi told AFP.
A commercial Air France flight carrying the debris was due to land at Paris' Orly airport on Saturday morning at around 6:00 am (0400 GMT). It will be transported to Toulouse for analysis in a defence ministry laboratory.
French officials said analysis of the wing part would begin on Wednesday, along with an examination of parts of a suitcase discovered nearby.
Boeing said in a statement Friday that it would send a technical team to France to study the plane debris at the request of civil aviation authorities.
"Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane, but also to determine what happened –- and why," the US aerospace giant added.
However, authorities have warned one small piece of plane debris is unlikely to completely clear up one of aviation's greatest puzzles.
MH370 was one of only three Boeing 777s to have been involved in major incidents, along with the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine last year and the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco airport in 2013 that left three dead.
Photographs show the wing component bearing the part number "657BB".
"From the part number, it is confirmed that it is from a Boeing 777 aircraft. This information is from MAS (Malaysia Airlines)," Aziz told AFP.
Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is leading the search for the passenger jet, said the agency was "increasingly confident that this debris is from MH370".
- Curious locals -
On La Reunion, where a clean-up crew discovered the wreckage and the suitcase, dozens of curious locals scoured the rocky shore for other possible debris.
Members of the same clean-up association on Friday discovered a detergent bottle with Indonesian markings and a bottle of Chinese-branded mineral water, which they took to police.
Of the victims, 152 were Chinese and seven from Indonesia.
Australian officials played down the discovery of the suitcase, saying such items "may just be rubbish".
The Australian-led search has spent 16 months combing the southern Indian Ocean for the aircraft, which is known to have inexplicably veered off-course.
But no confirmed physical evidence has ever been found, sparking wild conspiracy theories about the plane's fate.
For the families of the victims, torn between wanting closure and hoping beyond hope that their loved ones were still somehow alive, the discovery of the wing part has been yet another painful turn on an emotional rollercoaster.
Australian Jeanette Maguire, whose sister Cathy was on board, said the discovery had triggered "a very bittersweet feeling for all of the family, it's quite emotional".
Speculation on the cause of the plane's disappearance has focused primarily on a possible mechanical or structural failure, a hijacking or terror plot, or rogue pilot action.
- Main debris at bottom of ocean -
Scientists say there are several plausible scenarios in which ocean currents could have carried a piece of debris from the plane to the island.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said while the part "could be a very important piece of evidence", using reverse modelling to determine more precisely where the debris may have drifted from was "almost impossible".
Australian search authorities, which are leading the Indian Ocean hunt for the aircraft some 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from La Reunion, said they were confident the main debris field was in the current search area.
Dolan said the discovery did not mean other parts would start washing up on La Reunion.
"Over the last 16 or 17 months, any floating debris would have dispersed quite markedly across the Indian Ocean," he said.
Truss said investigators would be keen to examine the part to try to find out how it may have separated from the rest of the jet and "whether there's any evidence of fire or other misadventure on the aircraft".
But Dolan cautioned that there were "limits to how much you can determine from just one piece of debris".
"We know that the main debris field associated with MH370 is going to be on the bottom of the ocean, not floating on the surface."