A Philippine air force carrying combat troops crashed in a southern province while landing Sunday, killing at least 29 army soldiers on board and two civilians on the ground, while at least 50 were rescued from the burning wreckage, officials said.
Some soldiers were seen jumping off the aircraft before it crashed and exploded around noon in the periphery of the Jolo airport in Sulu province, military officials said. Two of six villagers who were hit on the ground have died.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said rescue and recovery efforts were ongoing. The aircraft had 92 people on board, including three pilots and five crew and the rest were army personnel, military officials said. The pilots survived but were seriously injured.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two ex-U.S. Air Force aircraft handed over to the Philippines as part of military assistance this year. It crashed on landing shortly before noon Sunday in Bangkal village in the mountainous town of Patikul in Sulu province, military chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.
Military officials said at least 50 people on board were brought to a hospital in Sulu or flown to nearby Zamboanga city and troops were trying to search for the rest. “Per eyewitnesses, a number of soldiers were seen jumping out of the aircraft before it hit the ground, sparing them from the explosion caused by the crash,” a military statement said.
Initial pictures released by the military showed the tail section of the cargo plane. The other parts of the plane were burned or scattered in pieces in a clearing surrounded by coconut trees. Soldiers and other rescuers with stretchers are seen dashing into and from the smoke-shrouded crash site.
The plane was transporting troops from southern Cagayan de Oro city for deployment in Sulu, Sobejana said. Government forces have been battling Abu Sayyaf militants in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu for decades.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash. Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan said it was unlikely that the aircraft came under fire and cited witnesses as saying that it appeared to have overshot the runway.
"It's very unfortunate," Sobejana told reporters. "The plane missed the runway and it was trying to regain power but failed and crashed."
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The weather was apparently fine in Sulu although other parts of the Philippines were experiencing rains due to an approaching tropical depression. The airport in Sulu's main town of Jolo is located a few miles from a mountainous area where troops have battled the Abu Sayyaf. Some militants have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group.
The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings. It has been considerably weakened by years of government offensives but remains a threat.
President Rodrigo Duterte expanded the military presence in Sulu into a full division in late 2018, deploying hundreds of additional troops, air force aircraft and other combat equipment after vowing to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf and allied foreign and local gunmen.
Sunday's crash comes as the limited number of military aircraft has been further strained, as the air force helped transport medical supplies and protective equipment to far-flung island provinces amid spikes in Covid-19 infections.
The Philippine government has struggled for years to modernize its military, one of Asia's least equipped, as it dealt with decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies and territorial rifts with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.