By Mahdia Benhamla
Plane wreckage washed up on a tiny Indian Ocean island will be sent to France for investigation, as hopes mount the mysterious object could unlock the riddle of missing flight MH370.
After a fruitless 16-month search for the Malaysia Airlines plane, the discovery of a piece of a plane wing has offered up the bittersweet hope of closure to the families of 239 people who seemingly disappeared into thin air on the doomed flight.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak says the two-metre long piece of wreckage found on the French island of La Reunion is "very likely" from a Boeing 777 but it remains to be seen if it indeed came from MH370.
Malaysian investigators arrived on the island to study the object on Thursday and a French military helicopter slowly circled the area where the debris washed up on a rocky beach.
However, as expectation mounts over the find, authorities are warning against jumping to conclusions.
"Whatever wreckage is found needs to be further verified before we can further confirm whether it belongs to MH370," said Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai.
Flight MH370 was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it mysteriously vanished on March 8 last year.
For relatives, torn between wanting closure and believing their loved ones are 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.
Government officials on La Reunion said France's civil aviation investigating authority BEA has been asked to co-ordinate an international probe into the origin of the debris.
Najib said authorities would send the object to the southern French city of Toulouse to be examined by the BEA.
Further adding to the mystery, a torn fragment of luggage was discovered in the same place as the plane wreckage.
"It is really weird, it gives me the shivers," said Johnny Begue, a member of a beach clean-up crew who discovered the plane debris on Wednesday.
Australia, which has led the search for MH370, said the discovery was an "important development".
"If it is indeed wreckage from MH370, it starts to provide some closure for the families of the people on board," said Australia's Transport and Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss.
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.
Excitement over the discovery was tempered by suggestions it could be from planes that went down in the region before, including a South African Airways Boeing 747 that crashed near the island of Mauritius in 1987, killing all 159 people on board.
Malaysia Airlines said it remained "too premature for the airline to speculate (on) the origin of the flaperon," a wing component.
La Reunion lies about 4000 kilometres from the area considered the most likely impact zone, but experts said it could have drifted there.