Joint Task Force-Sulu via AP
MANILA, Philippines – A Philippine air force C-130 plane 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 less 50 were rescued from the burning wreckage. officials said.
Some soldiers were seen jumping from the plane before it crashed and exploded around noon on the periphery of the Jolo airport in Sulu province, military officials said. Two of the six villagers who were hit on the ground have died.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said rescue and recovery efforts were ongoing. The aircraft had 96 people on board, including three pilots and five crew members, and the rest were army personnel, the army said, adding that 17 soldiers were still missing at dusk. The pilots survived but were seriously injured, authorities said.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two former United States Air Force aircraft delivered to the Philippines as part of military assistance this year. It crashed upon landing shortly before noon Sunday in the village of Bangkal in the mountain city of Patikul, said the chief of military staff, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana.
Military officials said at least 50 people on board were taken to a hospital in Sulu or flown to the nearby city of Zamboanga and troops were trying to search for the rest. “According to eyewitnesses, several soldiers were seen jumping from the aircraft before it hit the ground, sparing them from the explosion caused by the accident,” a military statement said.
Initial images released by the military showed the tail section of the cargo plane relatively intact. The other parts of the plane were burned or scattered in a clearing surrounded by coconut trees. Soldiers and other rescuers with stretchers were seen running to and from the crash site shrouded in smoke.
The plane was carrying troops, many of them new soldiers who had just received basic training, from the southern city of Cagayan de Oro for deployment to Sulu, authorities said.
“They were supposed to join us in our fight against terrorism,” said Sulu’s military commander, Major General William Gonzales. Government forces have been fighting the Abu Sayyaf militants in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu for decades.
It was not immediately clear what caused the accident. Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan said the aircraft was unlikely to receive hostile fire and cited witnesses who said it appeared to have overshot the runway and then crashed on the periphery of the airport.
“It is very unfortunate,” Sobejana told reporters. “The plane lost the runway and was trying to regain power, but it misfired and crashed.”
An air force official told The Associated Press that Jolo’s runway is shorter than most others in the country, making it difficult for pilots to adjust if a plane misses the landing site. The official, who has flown military planes to and from Jolo several times, spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to speak publicly.
Initial images showed that the weather was apparently good in Sulu, although other parts of the Philippines were experiencing rain due to the proximity of a tropical depression. Jolo Airport, Sulu’s main city, is located a few kilometers (miles) from a mountainous area where troops have fought against the Abu Sayyaf militants. Some militants have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group.
The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings. It has been considerably weakened by years of government offensives, but it remains a threat.
President Rodrigo Duterte expanded the military presence in Sulu to a full division in late 2018, deploying hundreds of additional troops, air force planes and other combat equipment after vowing to eliminate Abu Sayyaf and allied local and foreign gunmen.
Government forces at the time were hunting down Muslim armed groups a year after increasing the five-month siege of the southern city of Marawi by hundreds of militants linked to the Islamic State group. More than 1,000 people, mostly long-elusive Abu Sayyaf militants and commanders, were killed in months of intense air and ground attacks.
Sunday’s crash comes as the limited number of military aircraft has been further strained as the air force helped transport medical supplies, vaccines and protective equipment to remote island provinces amid spikes in COVID-19 infections. .
The Philippine government has struggled for years to modernize its military, one of the least equipped in Asia, as it grappled with decades-long Muslim and Communist insurgencies and territorial divisions with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.