Fifty people have died in the Philippines’ worst ever military air disaster.
Troops found the last five dead from a crash of a transport aircraft that happened on Sunday in the south of the country.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was carrying 96 mostly combat troops when it overshot the runway while landing at the Jolo airport in Sulu province, military officials said.
It slammed into a coconut grove beyond the airport and burst into flames in a noontime disaster witnessed by horrified soldiers and villagers.
Forty-nine military personnel were rescued, including some who jumped out of the aircraft before it exploded.
Seven people on the ground were hit by parts of the aircraft or other debris, and three of them died, the military said.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two refurbished US Air Force aircraft handed over to the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, as part of military assistance this year.
The aircraft earlier had carried two-star General Romeo Brawner Jr, his wife and three children from Manila to southern Cagayan de Oro city, where he’s set to become the new military regional commander on Monday.
Those who boarded the C-130 in Cagayan de Oro for the flight to Sulu were army troops, many of them newly trained recruits, to be deployed in the battle against Abu Sayyaf militants in the south.
Brawner was stunned to learn the plane he’d just flown on had crashed. “We’re very thankful that we were spared, but extremely sad that so many lost their lives,” Brawner told The Associated Press.
A video taken by troops showed the aircraft landing in clear weather then vanishing beyond the airport. “It vanished, it vanished,” one soldier exclaims. Dark gray smoke later billowed from the crash site in a wooded area as the troops yelled, “it fell, it fell”.
“They were supposed to join us in our fight against terrorism,” Sulu military commander Major General William Gonzales 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 and investigators were looking for the C-130’s black boxes containing the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
Military chiefs said it was unlikely the aircraft crashed as a result of enemy fire.
An air force official told The AP that the Jolo runway is shorter than most others in the country, making it more difficult for pilots to adjust if an aircraft misses the landing spot. The official, who has flown military aircraft to and from Jolo several times, spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.
President Rodrigo Duterte expanded the military presence in Sulu to a full division in late 2018, deploying hundreds of additional troops, air force aircraft and other combat equipment after vowing to wipe out Abu Sayyaf.
The small but brutal group has been blacklisted by the US and the Philippines as a terrorist organisation for ransom kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.
Before Sunday, the Philippine air force’s deadliest disaster was a crash in a rice field north of Manila in 1971 that killed 40 military personnel, military historian Jose Custodio said.
A recently delivered S-701 Blackhawk helicopter crashed more than a week ago near Clark freeport, a former U.S. air base, killing all six air force personnel on board.
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.