At least 45 people have been killed and dozens injured after a Philippines Air Force plane carrying troops crashed on landing and burst into flames.
The incident happened shortly before noon on Sunday in Bangkal village in the mountainous town of Patikul in the southern Sulu province, where the plane missed the runway, according to an official.
Three civilians on the ground were be among the dead, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who said that 42 soldiers had been killed.
Forty-nine military personnel and four civilians were also injured and taken to hospital. Five members of the military are still missing.
Ninety-six people had been onboard the Lockheed C-130 Hercules at the time of the crash, including three pilots who survived with serious injuries, and five crew. The rest of the passengers were military personnel.
The crash is one of the country’s deadliest military aviation accidents.
Some of the soldiers were seen jumping out of the plane before it hit the ground and exploded into flames, Major General William Gonzales, commander of the Joint Task Force-Sulu said.
‘This is a sad day but we have to remain hopeful,’ Gonzales said in a statement.
‘We enjoin the nation to pray for those who are injured and those who have perished in this tragedy.’
The Hercules was one of two ex-U.S. Air Force aircraft handed over to the Philippines as part of military assistance this year.
Military chief Cirilito Sobejana said the plane had ‘missed the runway trying to regain power.’
A military spokesman, Colonel Edgard Arevalo, said earlier on Sunday that there was no indication of any attack on the plane, but that a crash investigation had not begun and efforts were focussed on rescue and treatment.
The crash happened in the far south of the archipelago nation where the army has been fighting a long war against Islamist militants from the Abu Sayyaf and other factions.
Pictures from the scene showed flames and smoke pouring from wreckage strewn among trees as men in combat uniform milled around. A large column of black smoke rose into the sky above houses located near the crash site.
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.
All photos appeared to suggest that the weather was fine in Sulu at the time of the crash, although other parts of the Philippines were experiencing rains due to an approaching tropical depression.
Sobejana said in a message to Reuters news agency that the plane had crashed a few kilometres (miles) from Jolo airport at 11:30 a.m. (0330 GMT) and had been carrying troops.
‘We are currently attending to the survivors who were immediately brought to the 11th Infantry Division station hospital in Busbus, Jolo, Sulu,’ he said.
The four-engine plane crashed near a quarry in a lightly populated area, First Lieutenant Jerrica Angela Manongdo said.
It was transporting troops from the southern Cagayan de Oro city, many of them had recently graduated from basic military training, Sobejana said.
An air force official told The Associated Press 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.
Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Corletan Vinluan told AFP news agency the aircraft overshot the landing strip and broke into two, according to initial reports.
High school student Almar Hajiri Aki told AFP that he was standing beside a road when he heard a ‘loud explosion’ behind him.
‘I thought our house was hit,’ said the 21-year-old, who rushed with his neighbours to help pull soldiers from the wreckage.
The airport is located a few miles from a mountainous area where troops have been battling Abu Sayyaf. Some militants there have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group.
The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organisation 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.
Government forces at the time were running after Muslim armed groups a year after quelling the five-month siege of southern Marawi city by hundreds of militants linked to the Islamic State group. More than 1,000 people, mostly militants and long-elusive Abu Sayyaf commanders, were killed in months of intense air and ground assaults.
C-130 aircraft, the work horses of air forces around the world for decades, are used to transport troops and supplies. They are also often deployed to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Senator Richard Gordon said it was the fourth military aircraft accident this year with ‘mass casualties’.
‘Are we buying defective crafts… (with) the people’s money?’ he tweeted.
Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the previous mishaps were being probed and dismissed speculation about the causes as ‘disrespectful’ to victims and their families.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque described the accident as ‘very unfortunate’, and the US embassy Charge d’Affaires John Law offered ‘sincerest condolences’ to the families of the victims.
Sunday’s accident comes after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed last month during a night-time training flight, killing all six on board.
Three pilots and three airmen died when their S70-i went down near the Crow Valley training range north of Manila, prompting the grounding of the entire fleet.
The country ordered 16 of the multi-role aircraft from a Polish firm that made them under licence from the Sikorsky division of US defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
The Philippine government has struggled for years to modernise its military, one of Asia’s least equipped, as it dealt with decades-long Islamist and communist insurgencies and territorial rifts with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.