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By AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
ARSEILLE, France, Wednesday, April 7 - A French underwater salvage team has discovered the remains of the plane of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of "The Little Prince," six decades after his disappearance, government researchers said Wednesday.
The pieces of the Lockheed Lightning P38 aircraft, which vanished July 31, 1944 during a wartime reconnaissance mission, were found off the coast of the Mediterranean city of Marseille, the Culture Ministry's Department of Subaquatic and Submarine Archaeological Research said.
The discovery is a galvanizing moment for France, which had long speculated as to the fate of Saint-Exupéry, an aristocratic adventurer whose life and books turned him into one of the country's biggest heroes.
"The Little Prince," his edifying tale about a little interstellar traveler who recounts his experiences to an aviator he meets in the Sahara, brought him posthumous international fame. The book, first published in New York in English in 1943 and since translated into more than 100 languages, is one of the best-selling titles on the planet, after the Bible and Marx's Das Kapital.
Saint-Exupéry, a veteran pilot who helped establish Latin America's Aeropostale air delivery service in the late 1920's, went missing shortly after flying from his base on the French island of Corsica in good weather to photograph parts of southern France in preparation for the Allied landings there.
The pilot, then 44, never returned, and, until recently, it was not known whether his plane went down in the mountainous back country on the mainland, or somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea in between. In May 2000, a French professional diver found the remains of a P38 plane in 230 feet of water off Marseille - in the same area that a fisherman two years earlier had brought to the surface a bracelet inscribed "Saint-Ex."
"The zone containing the pieces was very large, one kilometer long and 400 meters wide," said the diver, Luc Vanrell.
Another diver who is also an amateur aviation expert, Philippe Castellano, said the combination of the bracelet and his information on the 42 P38-model planes that had gone down in southern France convinced him "it could only have been Saint-Ex's plane." But a state ban on further dives in the area delayed searches until October 2003, when a contracted salvage team recovered the pieces from the aircraft for the Culture Ministry's researchers.
One of them bore a manufacturer's number, 2734, that researchers finally confirmed corresponded to the military number given to Saint-Exupery's plane - 42-68223.
The head of the Culture Ministry department that announced the news, Patrick Granjean, said it was now formally established that the author's plane had gone down off Marseille. But, he added: "We don't know why. We probably never will."