SAINT-DENIS, Reunion (Reuters) - Plane debris washed up on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean is almost certainly part of a Boeing 777, a Malaysian official and aviation experts said, potentially the biggest breakthrough in the search for missing Flight MH370.
Malaysian investigators are expected in Reunion on Friday and the object, identified by aviation experts as part of a wing, would then be sent to a French military laboratory near Toulouse for checks, French police sources said.
National carrier Malaysia Airlines was operating a Boeing 777 when the ill-fated flight disappeared in March last year en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, creating one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history. It was carrying 239 passengers and crew.
The plane piece was found on Wednesday washed up on Reunion, a volcanic island of 850,000 people that is a full part of France, located in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.
Reunion is roughly 3,700 km (2,300 miles) from the broad expanse of the southern Indian Ocean off Australia where search efforts have focused, but officials and experts said currents could have carried wreckage that way, thousands of kilometres from where the plane is thought to have crashed.
MH370 is believed to be the only 777 to have crashed south of the equator since the jet came into service 20 years ago.
If the debris is confirmed to be from MH370, experts will try to retrace its drift back to where the bulk of the plane likely sank on impact. However, they cautioned that the discovery was unlikely to provide any more precise information about the aircraft's final resting place.
Nevertheless, the search area for MH370 could be refined, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
"I presume that if this wreckage does turn out to be from a Boeing 777 that the analysts will do their best ... to try to work out exactly where it came from," he told Australian radio.
"I don't know how accurate that will be but I dare say it will give us some more evidence and it might enable us to further refine the search area, it might," Abbott said.
CODE FOUND IN MANUAL
Aviation experts who have seen widely circulated pictures of the piece of debris, which is about 2-2.5 metres (6.5-8 feet) long, said it may be a moving wing surface known as a flaperon.
France 2 television showed a picture of the part with the figures "657 BB" stamped on its interior. That corresponds to a code in the 777 manual identifying it as a flaperon and telling workers to place it on the right wing, according to a copy of a Boeing document that appeared on aviation websites.
"It is almost certain that the flaperon is from a Boeing 777 aircraft," Malaysian Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi told Reuters.
A source close to the French investigation said the plan was to transfer the wing flap to France's European mainland, along with a fragment of luggage that had also been found in the area.
"We're trying to get the debris of wing and the bag fragment sent off as soon as possible, if possible Friday, arriving probably on Saturday," said the source. The wing part would be sent to a military unit near Toulouse, while the luggage fragment may go to a police unit that specialises in DNA tests.
A spokesman for Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said a preliminary look indicated the luggage had not been in the water for long.
Truss said the search for the main wreckage site would ramp up again once the stormy southern hemisphere winter had passed.
"There is still a significant part of the priority search area that we haven't looked at ... I'm still confident that we'll be able to find the aircraft in that area," he told Australia's Sky television.
Investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off MH370's transponder before diverting the plane thousands of miles off course. Most of the passengers were Chinese. Beijing has said it was following developments closely.
PAIN FOR FAMILIES
Lingering uncertainty surrounding the fate of the plane has been agony for the families of those on board.
"Even if we find out that this piece of debris belongs to MH370, there is no way to prove that our people were with that plane," said Jiang Hui, 41, whose father was on the flight.
Ghyslain Wattrelos, a French businessman whose wife and two children were on the missing flight, told French BFMTV the discovery of the debris had been "extremely painful".
"This doesn't give hope, this is a moment I have been fearing," he said. "As long as there wasn't any evidence of a crash, of wounded, of dead or whatever, there was a little glimmer of hope for us."
Zhang Qihuai, a lawyer representing some of the passengers' families, said a group of around 30 relatives had agreed they would proceed with a lawsuit against the airline if the debris was confirmed to be from MH370.
Daniel Rose, a partner at Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in New York, which is representing more than 50 victims' families, said the discovery was unlikely to trigger a wave of lawsuits.
Families are pursuing a settlement with insurer Allianz
(Reporting by Tim Hepher, Emmanuel Jarry and Matthias Blamont in PARIS, Lincoln Feast and Swati Pandey in SYDNEY, Alwyn Scott in NEW YORK, Siva Govindasamy in SINGAPORE, Sui Lee Wee in BEIJING and Praveen Menon in KUALA LUMPUR; Writing by Mark John and Dean Yates; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)