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Polish president and elite killed in plane disaster

By Marina Sokolova and Maxim Malinovsky
Sun Apr 11 04:14:52 EST 2010
Sat Apr 10 18:14:52 UTC 2010

SMOLENSK, Russia, April 10 AFP - A Soviet-era jet carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and much of the military and state elite has crashed in thick fog in Russia, killing all 96 people on board in a blazing inferno.

The Tupolev Tu-154 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.

The jet hit treetops in fog on Saturday as it approached the runway at Smolensk airport in western Russia and broke up in flames, regional governor Sergei Antufiev said.

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

Russian news agencies said investigators suspected pilot error. A Russian air force official told news agencies that the crew repeatedly ignored instructions from air traffic controllers.

Wreckage 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, 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.

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."

The Polish cabinet held an emergency meeting, as did the military leadership.

There was no immediate word from the president's identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, who previously served as prime minister.

The 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's engines and a large chunk of its mud-caked tailfin were strewn over a large area in the fog-blanketed forest -- which is only a few kilometres from Katyn.

Russian news agencies reported that pilot error was suspected. "The cause of the plane crash was apparently an error by the crew during the approach to landing," Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed official in Smolensk as saying.

The jet had been fully repaired and refurbished in December, Alexei Gusev, director of the Aviakor aircraft factory that makes the planes, said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head an inquiry commission and sent Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to the site.

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 and 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 told Russian news agencies.

"I have given an order to carry out a detailed investigation of the accident with complete and close cooperation with the Polish side," Medvedev said in a message to Komorowski.

"In the name of the Russian people, I offer my deepest, truest condolences to the Polish people, feelings of compassion and support for the relatives and loved ones of those killed," he said in an address due to be broadcast on Polish television.

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.