Twenty-three Argentine navy men survived the crash landing Wednesday of an Electra reconnaisance plane at a naval aviation base 875 miles south of Buenos Aires, witnesses said.

"The pilot tried to land the plane on its belly . . . but it hit the ground somewhat nose first. Then its right wing broke off and most of the fuselage caught on fire," said witness Raul Lijo, manager of Radio Chubut.Almirante Zar base commander Captain Miguel Robles told a news conference that the plane's pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer were badly injured and others suffered minor injuries. Lijo said most of the passengers got out by their own means.

Robles said the pilot decided on a crash landing after he discovered a problem with the landing gear.

"Firemen were waiting for the plane by the tarmac and rushed to the spot where it landed. Our team was about 2,000 metres away (2,000 yards) but it saw the plane hit the ground and catch fire," Lijo said.

Lijo said his staff raced to the base after learning that the four-engine turboprop plane, which usually patrols Atlantic fishing grounds off the Patagonian coast, was in trouble.