SYDNEY: Authorities hunting for missing flight MH370 are "increasingly confident" that wreckage found on an Indian Ocean island is from the ill-fated jet, the Australian official leading the search said on Friday (Jul 31).
The two-metre long piece of wreckage is to be sent to France for analysis, with hopes high that it could turn out to be the first tangible proof that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean.
Investigators are hoping they will be able to move closer to solving the perplexing mystery swirling around the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which vanished without a trace 16 months ago with 239 people aboard.
"We are increasingly confident that this debris is from MH370," Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which is leading the MH370 search, told AFP. "The shape of the object looks very much like a very specific part associated only with 777 aircraft."
Dolan, however, echoed comments on Thursday by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who said the object was "very likely" from a Boeing 777 but cautioned that it remained to be confirmed, in a case notorious for disappointing false leads. Dolan said he was hoping for greater clarity "within the next 24 hours".
Several experts believe the debris is a Boeing 777 flaperon, a wing part, and that if it is confirmed it almost certainly belonged to the Malaysia Airlines plane, whose disappearance became one of aviation's greatest mysteries.
The debris washed up on the French island of La Reunion, some 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from the oceanic region where MH370 was thought to have gone down in March last year.
The recovered object is expected to be flown to a testing site in France near the city of Toulouse for analysis by aviation authorities and could reach there by Saturday, French sources told AFP.
Flight MH370 was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it mysteriously turned off course and vanished on March 8 last year.
For relatives of those aboard, torn between wanting closure and believing their loved ones were still somehow alive, the discovery was yet another painful turn on an emotional rollercoaster.
"It has started all over again, staring at the phone constantly for news," said Jacquita Gonzales, wife of Patrick Gomes, the flight's cabin crew supervisor.
Local government officials on La Reunion said France's civil aviation investigating authority BEA has been asked to coordinate an international probe into the origin of the debris.
Further adding to the mystery, a torn fragment of luggage was discovered in the same place as the plane wreckage. Australian search chiefs have played down any link between the fragment and the doomed flight, however.
Authorities involved in the search at sea, guided by the analysis of signals from the plane that were detected by a satellite, believe it went down in the southern Indian Ocean. But no confirmed physical evidence has ever been found and Malaysian authorities in January declared that all on board were presumed dead.
While there have been several accidents in the region, such as a South African Airways Boeing 747 that crashed near the island of Mauritius in 1987, killing all 159 people on board, none has involved a Boeing 777.
Experts said an identification number on the debris meant it could be rapidly identified as from a Boeing 777.
Valborg Byfield, a scientist at the National Oceanography Centre in Britain, said there were two ocean currents which could have swept the wreckage from the crash site to La Reunion.
"Were the plane to have gone done south of the equator, the debris might have been transported by the South Equatorial Current, which bifurcates as it approaches the African coast, with one stream going south along the eastern coast of Madagascar. This would take it past La Reunion."
Angry next of kin have accused Malaysia's government of incompetence, secrecy, and insensitivity toward relatives, and many have questioned the focus on the Indian Ocean, saying other possibilities were being ignored.
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.