Parts of the wreckage of an Air France plane found in the Atlantic at the weekend contain the bodies of some of the passengers who died when the aircraft crashed off Brazil in 2009, the French government said on Monday.
Air France flight 447, an Airbus 330-203 plane, plunged into the ocean en route from Rio to Paris, killing all 228 passengers and crew on board and a long search has so far failed to find flight recorders that could give clues to the cause of the accident.
The latest search, the fourth since the crash, is being carried out using a salvage vessel equipped with unmanned submarines. An initial underwater search had also found parts of wreckage and bodies.
France's BEA accident investigation authority said on Sunday it had found a large part of the plane's wreckage including the engine and parts of the fuselage, and Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said on Monday there were human remains inside.
"We have more than just traces, we have bodies... Identification is possible," she told France Inter radio.
Transport Minister Thierry Mariani said victims' families would be informed of the findings at a meeting at the end of the week and no further details would be made public before then.
"It's true that bodies have been seen, but given the sensitive nature of the subject we prefer to keep certain details for the families," he told France Info radio.
The discovery of the chunks of the Air France wreckage in a vast search radius of some 10,000 square kilometres, has raised hopes that the aircraft's flight recorders, or black boxes, might now be found.
The aircraft vanished after hitting stormy weather over the Atlantic a few hours into the flight. Speculation about what caused the accident has focused on the possible icing up of the aircraft's speed sensors, which seemed to give inconsistent readings before communication was lost.
The Associated Press reports that rearchers are carrying out a fourth effort to find remains of the plane — and especially its flight recorders, in hopes of determining the cause of the crash.
Finding the cause took on new importance last month when a French judge filed preliminary manslaughter charges against Air France and the plane's manufacturer, Airbus. Experts say without the flight data and voice recorders, authorities will not likely determine what was at fault.
Air France and Airbus are financing the estimated $12.5 million cost of the new search. About $28 million has already been spent on the three previous searches for the jet's wreckage.
The search is being targeted in area of about 3,900 square miles (10,000 square kilometers), several hundred miles off Brazil's northeastern coast, and could last until July.
Searchers are using up to three autonomous underwater search vehicles, each of which can stay underwater for up to 20 hours while using sonar to scan a mountainous area known as the Mid-Ocean Ridge. Researchers download the data, and a vehicle with a high resolution camera is sent to check out an area if scientists see evidence of debris.