By Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) -A Philippines Air Force troop plane crashed and broke up in flames on a southern island on Sunday, killing at least 45 people after some jumped free, officials said, in the country’s worst military air disaster in nearly 30 years.
Pictures from the scene showed flames and smoke pouring from wreckage strewn among coconut palms as men in combat uniform milled around, while a column of thick black smoke rose into the sky.
The Lockheed C-130 transport aircraft, carrying troops bound for counter-insurgency operations, crashed with 96 people on board.
The plane had attempted to land at Jolo airport, but overshot the runway without touching down. It failed to regain enough power and height and crashed at nearby Patikul.
“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,” the Joint Task Force Sulu said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear how many jumped or whether they had survived.
Military chief Cirilito Sobejana said the plane had “missed the runway trying to regain power”.
The Department of National Defence said 45 people had been killed, including three civilians on the ground, while 53 were injured, including four civilians. Five military personnel were still missing.
A military spokesman, Colonel Edgard Arevalo, said there was no sign of any attack on the plane, but an investigation had yet to begin as efforts were focused on rescue and treatment.
The military command said the soldiers aboard had the rank of private and were being deployed to their battalions. They were flying to the provincial airport of Jolo from Laguindingan, about 460 km (290 miles) to the northeast.
The army in the sprawling Philippine archipelago has been fighting a long war against Islamist militants from Abu Sayyaf and other factions.
“They were supposed to join us in our fight against terrorism,” said Commander William N. Gonzales of Joint Task Force Sulu.
Jolo airport has a 1,200-metre runway that usually takes civilian turboprop flights though occasionally some military flights, according to a Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines spokesperson.
Jolo island, part of the Sulu archipelago, is about 950 km (600 miles) south of the capital, Manila.
The Lockheed C-130H Hercules aircraft, with registration 5125, had only recently arrived in the Philippines.
It was one of two aircraft provided by the U.S. government through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a government website said in January. It quoted an air force spokesman as saying the aircraft would boost capability for heavy airlift missions.
The website C-130.net said the plane that crashed had first flown in 1988. The model is a workhorse for armed forces around the world.
The Philippines armed forces have a patchy air safety record. Last month a Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a training mission, killing six people.
A Philippines Air Force C-130 crash in 1993 killed 30 people. A 2008 crash of the civilian variant of the Lockheed plane flown by the Philippines Air Force killed 11 people, the Aviation Safety Network says.
The country’s worst plane crash was that of an Air Philippines Boeing 737 in 2000, which killed 131 people.
(Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales: Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by William Mallard, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)