11 Apr 2010

Poland mourns president, leaders killed in crash

10:06 pm on 11 April 2010

Poland is in mourning over the deaths of President Lech Kaczynski and many of the country's ruling elite in a plane crash in Russia.

The plane, a Tupolev 154, that was more than 20 years old, plunged into a forest about two kilometres from the airport at Smolensk in thick fog on Saturday.

The chief of Poland's armed forces, the head of its navy, its central bank governor, opposition MPs and Mr Kaczynski's wife Maria were among the 96 people killed in the crash.

Russian officials earlier said there were 97 people killed.

The deputy head of Russia's air force said the pilots had ignored repeated requests from air traffic controllers to divert the flight to another airport to avoid the heavy fog around Smolensk, reports the BBC.

Russia's Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said both of the plane's flight information recorders had been found and were being examined.

A week of mourning has been called in Poland where a two minute silence was held at noon on Sunday local time.

Russia has also declared Monday a day of mourning for the victims, whose remains have been flown to mortuaries in Moscow.

Russian officials say relatives of the dead have begun arriving in Moscow.

Tens of thousands of mourners thronged the streets of central Warsaw through the night into Sunday, turning the avenue in front of the presidential palace into a sea of flowers and candles.

Mr Kaczynski, 60, and his delegation were flying into Smolensk for a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre in which Soviet troops killed thousands of Poles.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk described the crash as "the most tragic event of the country's post-war history".

Mr Tusk flew to western Russia where he and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin together laid flowers at the crash site.

Mr Kaczynski's twin brother and close political ally Jaroslaw, head of the opposition party they founded together, also flew to the site on Saturday evening, where he identified the bodies of the president and his wife.

Elected president in 2005, Mr Kaczynski was a controversial figure on the world stage, the BBC says, though his right-wing stance on many issues found ready reception among many Poles, especially traditionalist and rural voters.

Shock, sorrow around the world

There was an outpouring of sympathy from world leaders to the Polish people over the loss of their president.

A visibly shaken German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters she was in deep shock, and said Germany would miss Lech Kaczynski.

US President Barack Obama said in a statement that the Polish president had been "widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity".

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Mr Kaczynski's strong leadership and heartfelt patriotism.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who shared Kaczynski's sceptical views of EU integration, said he was losing his "closest political friend, a president whom I enormously appreciated for his consistent views."

In Israel, where Mr Kaczynski was highly regarded for his role in forging closer ties after a history stained by anti-Semitism, President Shimon Peres said in a letter: "The tragedy is a terrible blow to the Polish people and the entire world".

An early election will be held in Poland, as required by its constitution, and must take place by late June.