SAINT-ANDRE, France - A piece of Boeing 777 wreckage that washed up on an Indian Ocean island was to arrive in Paris early Saturday, after Malaysian authorities said the part was almost certainly recovered from missing flight MH370.
The wing part was due to arrive at Paris' Orly airport around 6am (0400 GMT) on board a commercial Air France flight after leaving the French island of La Reunion on Friday night.
If confirmed by analysis in a French defence ministry laboratory in the southwestern city of Toulouse, the discovery would mark the first breakthrough in a case that has baffled aviation experts for 16 months.
"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.
The Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared on March 8, 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board.
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, others 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.
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".
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 that their loved ones were somehow still alive, the discovery of the wing part has been yet another painful turn 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've been waiting for an answer for 14 months, and suddenly - perhaps - we may finally have an answer," the Frenchman, currently in San Francisco, told AFP.
"I hope to have answers very soon, because the wait is unbearable," he said.
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".
Main debris at bottom of ocean
An Australian-led search has spent 16 months combing the southern Indian Ocean for the aircraft, which is known to have inexplicably veered off-course.
"This is the first positive sign that we have located part of that plane," Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Saturday.
"Australia is still committed to assisting and doing whatever we can so that we can locate MH370 and provide answers for the families," she added.
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 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.