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Polish president killed in plane crash

By Marina Sokolova and Maxim Malinovsky
Sun Apr 11 04:12:59 EST 2010
Sat Apr 10 18:12:59 UTC 2010

SMOLENSK, Russia, April 10 AFP - An ageing jet carrying Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and much of the state elite has crashed in thick fog in Russia, killing all 97 people on board and plunging a nation into grief.

The Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-154 hit tree tops in fog as it approached the runway at Smolensk airport in western Russia on Saturday and broke up in flames, regional governor Sergei Antufiev said.

The plane was taking Kaczynski and his wife, the military chief of staff and other top officers, the central bank governor, the deputy foreign minister, members of parliament and other senior officials to a memorial ceremony for thousands of Polish troops massacred by Russian forces in World War II.

"It clipped the tops of the trees, crashed down and broke into pieces," Antufiev told Russia-24 television news network.

Lieutenant General Alexander Alyoshin, deputy head of Russia's air force, said the pilots repeatedly ignored instructions from air traffic controllers.

Wreckage, including the engines and a large chunk of mud-caked tailfin, was scattered across a forest and parts of it burned for more than an hour. The two black box flight recorders were quickly found, news agencies reported.

As well as killing the 60-year-old head of state, the crash devastated Poland's military leadership.

The 88 passengers included General Franciszek Gagor, chief of Poland's armed forces, and the heads of all the main armed forces, central bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek, deputy foreign minister Andrzej Kremer, deputy defence minister Stanislaw Jerzy Komorowski, Kaczynski's wife Maria, and scores of MPs, historians and other officials.

"This kind of dramatic tragedy is unheard of in the modern world," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said after an emergency cabinet meeting. He later headed to the crash site.

Former Polish president Lech Walesa, who headed the Solidarity movement, called the disaster "inconceivable".

"The Soviets killed Polish elites in Katyn 70 years ago. Today, the Polish elite died there while getting ready to pay homage to the Poles killed there," a shaken Walesa told AFP.

Bronislaw Komorowski, head of Poland's lower house, took over as interim head-of-state. He ordered a week of official mourning, declaring: "We are united -- there is no left or right -- we are united in national mourning,"

There was no immediate word from the president's identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, who previously served as prime minister. But thousands descended on the presidential palace in Warsaw to lay a sea of red and white flowers. Many people hung national flags from their windows.

The Polish delegation was to attend a memorial service in the Katyn Forest, near the crash scene, for the 22,000 top Polish officers and troops killed by Soviet troops 70 years ago. The event had been intended to help reconciliation between Poland and Russia.

The jet was repaired and refurbished in December, Alexei Gusev, director of the Aviakor maker said.

Russian officials pointed at pilot error.

About 1.5km from the airport, air traffic controllers noticed the jet was below the scheduled gliding path, the air force deputy chief said.

"The head of the group ordered the crew to return to horizontal flight, and when the crew did not fulfil the instruction, ordered them several times to land at another airport," Alyoshin said.

"Nonetheless the crew continued to descend. Unfortunately this ended tragically," he added.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head an inquiry commission and sent Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to the site. Putin later arrived to inspect the crash site as well.

Kaczynski and his twin brother formed a formidable dual leadership of Poland's nationalist right wing, stubbornly taking on other European leaders at EU summits to defend his country's cause.

He faced an election later this year but was to fight for a new term.

The crash occurred three days after Putin and Tusk attended a joint memorial for the Katyn victims. The event was seen as a huge symbolic advance in Russia's often thorny relations with Poland.

Putin called Tusk to express condolences over the "tragic" crash, the Russian leader's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Medvedev ordered a day of national mourning in Russia on Monday.

World leaders expressed shock at the disaster.

US President Barack Obama hailed the late president as "a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity".

French President Nicholas Sarkozy paid homage to his Polish counterpart as a man "driven by ardent patriotism, who dedicated his life to his country".

"He will be mourned across the world and remembered as a passionate patriot and democrat," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.