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France steps up Reunion island search for MH370 wreckage
[KUALA LUMPUR] France said it would launch new air, land and sea searches from Reunion on Friday in hopes of finding more wreckage from MH370, after Malaysia said a wing part found on the island came from the ill-fated flight.
The find is the first physical clue to solving one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history, 17 months after the aircraft inexplicably veered off course en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
A military plane will begin surveying the area of the Indian Ocean from Friday morning, the French government said in a statement. The search will also be stepped up with foot patrols, helicopters and maritime units, it added.
"Any discovery will be immediately made available to the investigation," said the joint statement by the French ministers of defence, transport and overseas territories.
Separately, local authorities where the first piece of debris was found said they would organise a thorough search starting Monday.
The re-energised hunt for MH370 clues follows Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's announcement that a two-metre-long (almost seven-foot) wing part discovered on the French island last week was confirmed as from the missing aircraft, the first proof that it met a tragic end 17 months ago.
"It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you that an international team of experts has conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion island is indeed from MH370," Mr Najib said Thursday.
The announcement was not universally welcomed by relatives of the 239 people on board the Malaysia Airlines jet, with some expressing scepticism and fresh criticism of officials' handling of the disaster.
The Boeing 777 disappeared on March 8 last year, sparking the largest search operation in history, now focused on the southern Indian Ocean based on satellite data hinting at the plane's path.
Australian authorities, who are leading the search, expressed renewed confidence that they were looking in the right area.
"The finding of this piece of wing gives us hope that we are searching in the right location, given the tides and currents and drift patterns," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Australian television from Malaysia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier said that "for the first time we might be a little bit closer to solving this baffling mystery." Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said on Thursday that certain characteristics of the wing part, including its paint, matched MH370 maintenance records.
French prosecutors involved in the analysis have been more cautious, however, saying only that there was a "very high probability" it came from the Boeing 777.
Mr Liow also said more possible MH370 objects - aircraft seat cushions and windows - had since been discovered on Reunion, but that any MH370 link "had to be verified by the French authorities." A French judicial source however said French investigators had not received any new items.
Some anguished family members said the first concrete proof of the plane's fate would help bring closure.
"We've had 17 months of nothing... so actually finding something is the first step towards pinpointing where it is," Sara Weeks, the sister of MH370 passenger Paul Weeks, told the Fairfax New Zealand media group.
But some relatives who have consistently criticised Malaysia's handling of the crisis - particularly in China where most of the passengers were from - rejected Najib's announcement.
They have accused his government and the airline of a bungled response to the disaster, possible cover-up and insensitive treatment of families, charges that are denied.
Some said they would reject any Malaysian government claims until the plane's black box data and flight recorders were recovered, or bodies were found.
"Where is my husband's body? Have any passengers' belongings been found? No. It's just a piece that they found," said Elaine Chew, whose husband Tan Size Hiang was one of the cabin crew.
"No, this is not closure for me." Analysts, however, call the find a clear step forward by eliminating theories that plane might have landed somewhere, and confirming the search was roughly on the right track.
But they caution that only by locating a crash site and recovering the black box are authorities likely to help solve the mystery, unless new evidence emerges elsewhere.
It is hoped that more detailed examination in the coming days may indicate how the wing part detached from the aircraft and whether it showed traces of an explosion or fire.