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Philippine air force plane crash kills at least 45

A Philippine air force C-130 aircraft carrying combat troops assigned to fight Muslim militants crashed and exploded while landing in the south Sunday, killing at least 42 army soldiers on board and three civilians on the ground.

Official says C-130 aircraft likely missed the runway; death toll includes 42 soldiers, 3 civilians

Rescuers carry a body from the site where a Philippine military C-130 plane crashed in the southern Philippines on Sunday. (Joint Task Force-Sulu/The Associated Press)

A Philippine air force C-130 aircraft carrying combat troops assigned to fight Muslim militants crashed and exploded while landing in the south Sunday, killing at least 42 army soldiers on board and three civilians on the ground in one of worst disasters in the air force's history.

At least 49 other soldiers were rescued with injuries and survived the fiery noontime crash into a coconut grove outside the Jolo airport in Sulu province, including some who managed to jump off the aircraft before it exploded and was gutted by fire, military officials said. Three of seven villagers who were hit on the ground died.

The aircraft had 96 people on board, including three pilots and five crew while the rest were army personnel, the military said, adding only five soldiers remained unaccounted for late Sunday. The pilots survived but were seriously injured, officials said.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two ex-U.S. Air Force aircraft handed over to the Philippines as part of military assistance this year. It crashed on landing shortly before noon Sunday in Bangkal village in the mountainous town of Patikul in Sulu province, Chief of Staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.

Officials said the injured personnel were brought to a hospital in Sulu or flown to nearby Zamboanga city and troops were continuing to search for the missing. "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," a military statement said, citing witnesses.

Soldiers had undergone basic training

The plane was transporting troops, many of them new soldiers who had just undergone basic training, from the southern Cagayan de Oro city for deployment in Sulu, officials 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. Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan said it was unlikely that the aircraft took hostile fire and cited witnesses as saying that it appeared to have overshot the runway, then crashed on the periphery of the airport.

"It's very unfortunate," Sobejana told reporters. "The plane missed the runway and it was trying to regain power but failed and crashed."

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.

The airport is located a few kilometres from a mountainous area where troops have battled Abu Sayyaf. Some militants have aligned themselves with the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

First responders approach the wreckage strewn among trees in the mountainous town of Patikul in Sulu province. (Joint Task Force-Sulu/Reuters)

The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization 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 Islamic armed groups a year after quelling the five-month siege of southern Marawi city by hundreds of militants linked to ISIS. More than 1,000 people, mostly militants and long-elusive Abu Sayyaf commanders, were killed in months of intense air and ground assaults.

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