By Roni Bintang
MEDAN, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia's president promised a review of the country's ageing air force fleet and a defense modernization drive on Wednesday, as the death toll from the crash of a military transport plane in the north of the country climbed to around 140.
The Hercules C-130B aircraft, which went into service half a century ago, was carrying 122 people when it ploughed into a residential area in the city of Medan shortly after taking off from an airbase. The incident throws a renewed spotlight on Indonesia's woeful air safety record.
A military spokesman said 135 people were confirmed dead, including all those on board the plane. The MetroTV news channel said at least 141 bodies had been brought to a nearby hospital, indicating around 20 people were killed on the ground.
"There must be an evaluation of the age of planes and defense systems," Widodo tweeted late on Tuesday, as earth movers recovered the dead from rubble of twisted metal and smashed buildings.
The plane had been on its way from an air force base in Medan, one of Indonesia's largest cities, to Tanjung Pinang in the Riau Islands off Sumatra. Media said the pilot had asked to return to the base because of technical problems.
Victims' families said on Wednesday that some passengers had paid to get on the aircraft.
"My older brother bought a ticket to take the Hercules plane," a victim's relative, who asked to be identified only by her initials B.A., told Reuters. "He paid around 800,000 rupiah ($60)," she said, adding that her brother was a civilian.
Others told local media their relatives had paid up to 1 million rupiah to board the flight.
Air force chief Agus Supriatna denied passengers had been asked to pay to board the military flight.
"What we fear is that there may be certain people offering to take passengers on board without permission, that is what we are investigating," Supriatna said.
The possible breach of rules once again puts scrutiny on the patchy safety record of the Indonesian aviation sector, which is among the fastest-growing in the region.
An AirAsia passenger jet crashed en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore last December, killing all 162 people on board. The incident prompted the government to introduce a slew of regulations aimed at improving safety.
PRESSURE TO MODERNIZE
Widodo said he had ordered an in-depth investigation into the cause of the incident and a "fundamental restructuring" of weapons management and procurement.
"We should not just buy weapons, but shift towards modernizing our weapons systems," he said in a televised statement on Wednesday.
"Our defense industry should be involved, starting from production, operation, maintenance. The main point is ... the procurement of weapons should ultimately move toward an independent defense industry."
According to the Aviation Safety Network, 10 fatal crashes involving Indonesian military or police aircraft have occurred over the last decade.
The Indonesian air force has now lost four C-130s, reducing its transport reach in an archipelago that stretches more than 5,000 km (3,000 miles) from its western to eastern tips.
The air force has grounded its remaining eight C-130Bs until investigators discover the cause of the crash.
This week's crash could bring pressure on the president to spend more on modernizing the air force.
"This incident shows us that we must renew our aircraft and our military equipment," Pramono Anung, a lawmaker and member of the parliamentary commission for defense, said in an interview.
"The Hercules is already old, many of our other systems are already old. As parliament we will support giving more funding to the military so that they can upgrade."
Although Indonesia accounted for nearly one-fifth of defense spending by Southeast Asian countries last year, as a percentage of GDP the amount was the lowest in the region at 0.8 percent, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data.
Widodo, who took office last year, has said he plans to double military spending to $15 billion by 2020.
(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor and Nilufar Rizki in JAKARTA; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Alex Richardson)