Indonesian plane crash toll rises to 142

Medan (Indonesia) (AFP) - The number of people killed when an Indonesian air force plane crashed into a residential neighbourhood rose to 142 on Wednesday, as families said their relatives had paid to be on the aircraft, in violation of military rules.

Witnesses described scenes of horror when the Hercules C-130 transport plane crashed into the city of Medan and exploded in a fireball Tuesday, shortly after taking off from a nearby airbase.

Buildings were severely damaged, cars reduced to flaming wrecks and the plane itself was almost completely destroyed, with the mangled tail the only part of the 51-year-old aircraft still recognisable after the disaster.

The recovery operation officially ended late Wednesday with all the parts of the plane cleared from the site, air force chief Agus Supriatna said. A small group of military personnel would remain in the area to check for more bodies, he added.

Many of those on board the flight, which was carrying 122 people, were believed to be servicemen and women and their families.

But the air force has repeatedly revised the number of people on the plane upwards -- it initially indicated there were only 12 crew -- raising questions whether paying civilian passengers had been allowed on board, leading to the plane becoming overloaded.

"We paid one million rupiah ($75) per person," said Janson Halomoan Sinaga, who lost five relatives who were heading to the remote Natuna Islands, adding they were "not a military family".

- Despairing relatives -

Some relatives of military family members also said they paid to travel on the flight. While the armed forces allows relatives of service members to hitch lifts on planes, any sort of payment is against the rules.

Supriatna denied the allegations of payments and vowed an investigation.

As more bodies were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospital, police put the total death toll at 142, indicating a growing number of fatalities on the ground. So far 62 victims, mostly military personnel, have been identified.

Around 100 despairing relatives gathered at a hospital morgue in Medan, the largest city on the island of Sumatra, where coffins were stacked up waiting to receive the bodies of crash victims. Some quietly sobbed, while others stared into space as ambulances came and went.

One grieving woman, Rahayu, wailed hysterically after opening a body bag and discovering her cousin.

"We were so close‎, we attended a wedding last month but now I can only see her pictures on Facebook," the 23-year-old, who only gave one name, told AFP.

Her two female cousins, teenage sisters Esther Yosephine and Rita Yunita, were killed on the flight and their bodies lay in bags side by side in the morgue. They had been travelling to visit their army officer father in the Natuna Islands.

Sixteen coffins carrying military personnel killed in the crash arrived at an airport in Jakarta late Wednesday, and were received with full military honours in a ceremony attended by President Joko Widodo.

Witness accounts have emerged of terrifying scenes at the crash site, with one man describing how the plane flew low and then smashed into a building, producing "flames as high as four storeys".

"I thought it was a terrorist attack or something," Tumpak Naibaho, a 27-year-old tyre repairman, told AFP, adding there were hundreds of people in the area when the crash happened around midday.

"I saw one man whose clothes were on fire, staggering out of the debris. His face was covered in blood, dust and ash."

The plane, which had been due to travel to Bintan island off Singapore and on to the Natuna Islands after departing Medan, crashed into a massage parlour and hotel when it came down, and is thought to have destroyed several buildings in the area.

Tuesday's accident was the sixth deadly crash involving an Indonesian air force plane in the past decade, according to the Aviation Safety Network, and prompted Widodo to call for a "fundamental overhaul" of the military's ageing equipment.

Indonesia also has a poor civil aviation safety record -- the latest disaster came just six months after an AirAsia plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

It is not clear what caused Tuesday's crash but the aircraft asked to turn back just after take-off and the air force has said it may have suffered engine trouble.

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