Malaysia is "almost certain" that plane debris found on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean is from a Boeing 777, the deputy transport minister said on Thursday, heightening the possibility it could be wreckage from missing Flight MH370.
The object, which appeared to be part of a wing, was being sent to offices of France's BEA crash investigation agency in Toulouse to verify if it is from the lost plane, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said.
Malaysia Airlines was operating a Boeing 777 on the ill-fated flight, which vanished in March last year with 239 passengers and crew members en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The missing jet remains one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history.
Search efforts led by Australia have focused on a broad expanse of the southern Indian Ocean off Australia. Réunion, where the debris was found washed up on Wednesday, is a French overseas department about 370 miles east of Madagascar and 2,300 miles west of that search area.
"The location is consistent with the drift analysis provided to the Malaysian investigation team, which showed a route from the southern Indian Ocean to Africa," Najib said in a statement.
There have been four serious accidents involving 777s in the 20 years since the wide-body jet came into service. Only MH370 is thought to have crashed south of the equator.
"No hypothesis can be ruled out, including that it would come from a Boeing 777," the Réunion prefecture and the French Justice Ministry said in a joint statement on Thursday.
Aviation experts who have seen widely circulated pictures of the debris said it may be a moving wing surface known as a flaperon, situated close to the fuselage.
"It is almost certain that the flaperon is from a Boeing 777 aircraft. Our chief investigator here told me this," Malaysian Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi told Reuters. He said a Malaysian team was heading to Réunion.
Australia Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said the object had a number stamped on it that might speed its verification.
"This kind of work is obviously going to take some time, although the number may help to identify the aircraft parts — assuming that's what they are — much more quickly than might otherwise be the case," he said.
Investigators believe someone deliberately switched off MH370's transponder before diverting it thousands of miles off course. Most of the passengers were Chinese, and Beijing said it was following developments closely.
For the families of those on board, lingering uncertainty surrounding the fate of the plane has been agony.
"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.
Zhang Qihuai, a lawyer representing some of the passengers' families, said a group of about 30 relatives agreed they would proceed with a lawsuit against the airline if the debris was confirmed to be from MH370.
Oceanographers said vast rotating currents in the southern Indian Ocean could have deposited wreckage from MH370 thousands of miles from where the plane is thought to have crashed.
If the debris is confirmed to be from MH370, experts will try to trace it to its source. But the discovery is unlikely to provide any more precise information about the aircraft's final resting place.
"This wreckage has been in the water, if it is MH370, for well over a year, so it could have moved so far that it's not going to be that helpful in pinpointing precisely where the aircraft is," Truss told reporters.
Robin Robertson, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the timing and location of the discovery made it "very plausible" that the debris came from MH370, given what is known about Indian Ocean currents.
Malaysia Airlines said it was too early to speculate on the origin of the debris.
If the part belongs to Flight MH370, it could provide valuable clues to investigators trying to figure out what caused the aircraft to vanish, said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor also at the University of New South Wales. The nature of the damage to the debris could help indicate whether the plane broke up in the air or when it hit the water and how violently it did so, he said.