Manila: Helicopters and divers were searching on Sunday for one of the most powerful Philippine ministers who were missing and feared dead after a light aircraft he was travelling in crashed into the sea.

President Benigno Aquino took the lead in the search for Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a day after his plane went down near the central island of Masbate. Aquino flew to Masbate where military divers and helicopters were scouring the area for the minister, who is missing along with two pilots.

Transport Secretary Mar Roxas, who accompanied Aquino, said special sonar equipment had also been flown to Masbate to help in the search operation after some debris, including one wing of the missing plane, was recovered.

"We just want to do everything we can to save him (Robredo)," Roxas said in a message on Twitter. Four people were on the private plane. Robredo's aide, Jun Abrazado, was the only rescued survivor and Aquino said he was conscious and had sustained only a few injuries.

The government also called a prayer vigil at a Roman Catholic chapel in Manila for the 54-year-old cabinet member, a father of three daughters and a former city mayor. He is considered to be one of the most influential Philippine politicians and a close presidential aide.

As interior secretary, Robredo was in control of the country's 143,000-strong national police force which has long been dogged by accusations of corruption and abuse. In recent months, he had ordered investigations into alleged financial irregularities over the construction of police stations and purchase of helicopters and rescue boats.

Robredo was also playing a key role in the dismantling of private armies allegedly deployed by some powerful provincial governors and city mayors ahead of congressional and local elections in 2013.

A former official at an ice cream company, Robredo was elected mayor of Naga City in the strife-torn Bicol region, south of Manila in 1988 at the age of 29, making him the youngest mayor in the country at the time.

His success in turning the once-sleepy city into a trading, housing and education centre won him many honours including a 2000 Ramon Magsaysay award, considered Asia's version of the Nobel Prize.

After serving nine years as a city mayor, he joined Aquino's successful campaign for the presidency in 2010, endorsing his reformist platform. Robredo was subsequently appointed to the cabinet.


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