Polish president dies as plane crashes in fog

Key members of the country's leadership among 97 people killed on way to attend events marking anniversary of Katyn massacre
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The Independent Online

Poland's President, Lech Kaczynski, and some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died yesterday when the presidential plane crashed as it attempted a landing in thick fog in western Russia. All 97 on board died.

The pilot had been warned about the appalling visibility and was urged to land in Moscow or Minsk. But he chose, or was ordered, to make for Smolensk. The plane tilted to the left as it made its approach, clipped a tree and crashed amid two large explosions. The state news channel, Rossiya-24, showed footage from the crash site, with pieces of the plane scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires burning in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the red and white national colours of Poland stuck up from the debris.

The 26-year-old Tupolev-154M, a plane with a poor safety record, was taking a party of 88 to events marking the anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 captured Polish officers were slaughtered by Soviet secret police in 1940. Among the dead were relatives of those who had died that April day. Thus did this, one of the more flagrant Soviet atrocities of the war, claim more victims 70 years after it was perpetrated. Also among the victims was Anna Walentynowicz, whose firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workers' strike that spurred the eventual creation of the Solidarity freedom movement. Also killed was Bronislaw Gostomski, 62, a priest from St Andrew Bobola Catholic Church in Shepherd's Bush, London. The crash tore great holes in the upper echelons of Poland's political and military establishment. On board were the army chief of staff, national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three MPs. A presidential election, due in October, will now be brought forward and held within two months. Under the Polish constitution, the president can veto legislation and is commander-in-chief of its armed forces, but otherwise has largely ceremonial duties.

Poland has long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but maintained that it lacked the funds. The presidential Tu-154 had been fully overhauled in December at the Aviakor aviation maintenance plant in Samara, Russia. The plane's three engines were repaired, its navigation equipment and electrics overhauled, and its interior updated. But, according to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew all its Tu-154 fleet from service.

The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and President Dmitry Medvedev both called the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to express their condolences and promised to work closely with Poland in investigating the crash. "On this difficult day the people of Russia stand with the Polish people," Mr Medvedev told Mr Tusk. Mr Putin, who has been put in charge of the commission investigating the crash, told Mr Tusk that he would keep him fully briefed.

Polish-Russian relations had been improving of late after being poisoned for decades by the Katyn massacre. Russia has never formally apologised for the murders but Mr Putin's decision to attend a memorial ceremony earlier this week in the forest near Katyn was seen as a gesture toward reconciliation. Russian television pictures showed hundreds of people around the Katyn monument, many holding Polish flags, some weeping.

In Warsaw, Mr Tusk called an extraordinary meeting of his cabinet, and the national flag was lowered to half mast at the presidential palace, where people gathered to lay flowers and light candles.

Kaczynski, 60, the first serving Polish leader to die since the exiled Second World War-era leader General Wladyslaw Sikorski died in a plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943, became president in December 2005. The nationalist conservative was the twin brother of Poland's opposition leader, the former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Kaczynski's wife, Maria, was an economist.

Kaczynski had said he would seek a second term in presidential elections. He was expected to face an uphill struggle against Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of Mr Tusk's governing Civic Platform party, who now, as parliamentary speaker, takes over as interim president.

In the village of Gorzno, in northern Poland, the streets were largely empty as people stayed at home to watch television. "It is very symbolic that they were flying to pay homage to so many murdered Poles," said Waleria Gess, 73, a resident. "I worry because so many clever and decent people were killed," said a high school student Pawel Kwas, 17. "I am afraid we may have problems in the future to find equally talented politicians."

Klaus Bachmann, a professor of politics at Wroclaw University, said the president "wasn't very popular and it was quite obvious that he would lose the upcoming elections".

"The open question is what will Kaczynski's party and his brother do; he might decide to run for president himself, he might also consider to withdraw from politics because he had a very, very close link to his brother and I can't imagine how shocked he must be."

Poland, a nation of 38 million people, is by far the largest of the 10 formerly communist countries that have joined the European Union in recent years. Last year Poland was the only EU nation to avoid recession and posted economic growth of 1.7 per cent. It has become a firm US ally in the region since the fall of communism – a stance that crosses party lines. It sent troops to the US-led war in Iraq and has some 2,600 soldiers in Afghanistan.

US Patriot missiles are expected to be deployed in Poland this year, a Polish condition for a 2008 deal to host long-range missile defence interceptors. The deal, struck by the Bush administration, angered Russia and was later reconfigured under President Barack Obama's administration. Under the Obama plan, Poland is due to host a different type of missile defence interceptor at a later date.