MANILA, July 4 (Reuters) – At least 29 people were killed on Sunday when a Philippines Air Force plane carrying troops crashed on landing and broke up in flames, the country’s worst military air disaster in nearly 30 years.
Pictures from the scene showed flames and smoke pouring from wreckage strewn among trees as men in combat uniform milled around, while a column of thick black smoke rose from the coconut palms into the sky.
The Lockheed C-130 transport aircraft carrying troops bound for counter-insurgency operations crashed with 96 aboard at Patikul in the far southern province of Sulu.
The army in the sprawling Philippine archipelago has been fighting a long war against Islamist militants from Abu Sayyaf and other factions.
Twenty-nine bodies were retrieved and 50 people had been taken to hospital, leaving 17 unaccounted for, the military said in a statement, adding there was still hope for survivors.
“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 unit, the Joint Task Force Sulu, said in the statement.
Military chief Cirilito Sobejana said the plane had “missed the runway trying to regain power”.
A military spokesman, Colonel Edgard Arevalo, said there was no sign of any attack on the plane, but a crash investigation had yet to begin and 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 pvorincial airport of Jolo from Laguindingan, about 460 km (290 miles) to the northeast.
“They were supposed to join us in our fight against terrorism,” said Commander William N. Gonzales of Joint Task Force Sulu.
Jolo island 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 had 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.