Wing part arrives at French lab for probe into MH370 link

Simon Valmary with Sonia Wolf in La Reunion

A piece of Boeing 777 wreckage washed up on an Indian Ocean island and suspected to belong to missing flight MH370 arrived Saturday at a French laboratory for analysis.

If confirmed as being from the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight, the discovery would mark the first breakthrough in a case that has baffled aviation experts for 16 months.

The convoy containing the two-metre (six-and-a-half-foot) wing part was escorted by police overland from Paris to the defence ministry laboratory near the southwestern city of Toulouse, encased in a wooden crate.

The part, identified as a flaperon, was flown overnight to the mainland from the French island of La Reunion, where it was found on a beach in the town of Saint Andre earlier this week.

From Paris' Orly airport, it was driven south by road, arriving at the laboratory at about 5.30 pm (1530 GMT).

MH370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

Malaysian and French experts will begin their analysis of the part on Wednesday, as well as fragments of a suitcase discovered nearby, according to an informed source.

On Saturday, a few hundred people attended a mass in Saint Andre in remembrance of the victims, a few hundred metres from the spot where the flaperon was found on Wednesday.

"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.

US aerospace giant Boeing said in a statement Friday that it would send a technical team to France to study the plane part.

- Puzzle -

Some warn that one small piece of plane debris is unlikely to completely clear up one of aviation's greatest puzzles.

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".

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 showing the wing component bearing the part number "657BB" proved it was from a Boeing 777, Aziz told AFP.

On La Reunion, where a clean-up crew discovered the wreckage and the suitcase, members of the same team on Friday discovered a detergent bottle with Indonesian markings and a bottle of Chinese-branded mineral water, which they took to police.

Most of the victims, 153, were Chinese and seven were from Indonesia. The rest came from a dozen other countries including France.

Four Malaysian officials including the head of civil aviation are in Paris together with officials from Malaysia Airlines for a meeting on Monday with three French magistrates and an official from France's civil aviation investigating authority BEA.

The lab near Toulouse, which specialises in plane crash investigations, also studied 650 pieces of debris from the Air France 447 flight that went down in the South Atlantic in June 2009 while travelling from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing 228.

The wing part is the first potential physical evidence to have been found in the more than 500 days since the MH370 accident, which has spawned wild conspiracy theories.

For the families of the victims, torn between wanting closure and hoping that their loved ones are somehow still alive, the discovery of the part has been yet another painful twist on an emotional rollercoaster.

Ghyslain Wattrelos, whose wife and two children were on the flight, said he was relieved to get the smallest bit of information about the missing plane.

"I hope to have answers very soon, because the wait is unbearable," the Frenchman, currently in San Francisco, told AFP.

- Search area unchanged -

An Australian-led search has spent 16 months combing the southern Indian Ocean for the aircraft, which inexplicably veered off-course.

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.

Scientists say it is plausible that ocean currents carried a piece of the wreckage as far as La Reunion.

Australian search authorities leading the hunt for the aircraft some 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from La Reunion said however they were confident the main debris field was in the current search area.

Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which is heading the search, 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.