Philippines mourns as top politician's body found

President Benigno Aquino looks on at a coffin containing the remains of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo carried by members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) upon arrival at Naga city, south of Manila.

MANILA - The Philippines was in mourning on Tuesday after divers recovered the body of one of its most influential politicians, who died when a plane carrying him and three others crashed into the sea.

Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo's body was found 55 metres (180 feet) under water near the coast of the island of Masbate, where the plane went down on Saturday, Transportation and Communications Secretary Mar Roxas said.

Divers battled strong currents to reach the wreck of the twin-engine Piper Seneca, which was lying overturned and broken into pieces on the seabed, about 800 metres from the shore. Robredo's body was brought up on Tuesday morning.

The 54-year-old, a father of three daughters, was a popular and well-liked statesman widely considered to be incorruptible, in a country where graft is endemic and politicians often distrusted.

The dramatic search-and-rescue efforts had gripped the Catholic nation of nearly 100 million people, with hundreds joining prayer vigils and longtime friend President Benigno Aquino going to Masbate initially to help.

Aquino returned to the central island on Tuesday to fetch Robredo's flag-draped casket, which he then delivered aboard a military airplane to the grieving family in their hometown of Naga in the eastern Philippines.

"He is a very big loss to the cabinet and to the entire nation," an emotional presidential spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, told reporters at a church in Manila where a mass for Robredo was held.

Jose Fabian Cadiz, a vice mayor of a suburban Manila district and a close Robredo friend, said people in Naga were feeling a deep sense of loss.

"He was a very good man and an even greater public servant. He will be very missed," Cadiz told AFP by phone from Robredo's home, where he was comforting the politician's wife and daughters - aged 12, 18 and 24.

Flags in all government offices flew at half mast, while the Australian, British and US governments extended sympathies to the Philippines.

Aquino's office said it planned a state funeral.

Robredo was flying to Naga from the central Philippines, where he was on an official trip, when the plane developed engine trouble, fell short of the runway and plunged into the sea.

Robredo's aide, one of the four people on board, survived the crash with non-life threatening injuries after hauling himself out of the plane as it was about to sink. Fishermen plucked him out of the water.

But the two pilots - Filipino Jessup Bahinting and Nepalese Kshitiz Chand - died and divers had not yet been able to recover their bodies from the sunken fuselage.

Roxas said a volunteer British diver led the rescue team to the wreckage.

The diver described the plane as broken into "three big chunks" with the three bodies intact inside the fuselage, according to Roxas.

As interior secretary, Robredo was in control of the country's 143,000-strong police force.

Robredo was in charge of efforts to tackle police corruption, part of a much-publicised anti-graft programme Aquino has been implementing across all sectors of society since coming to power in 2010.

Robredo's portfolio also included overseeing all local governments.

In this role he won plaudits for implementing a sensitive policy aimed at boosting transparency that required local governments to disclose key financial documents.

He was also credited with helping local governments put in place disaster mitigation schemes, such as early warning systems for typhoons, a vital task in a country where thousands of people die each year in natural calamities.

A former town mayor, Robredo became a rising political star in 2000 when he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for good governance, in recognition of transforming Naga from a backwater into a bustling commercial centre.

The well-respected award recognises high-achieving and honourable people annually across Asia.

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