Protests over plan to bury President in Polish pantheon

Poles angered by funeral arrangements for divisive and controversial leader

Angry crowds in Poland have protested over plans to bury President Lech Kaczynski and his wife in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, which is normally reserved for poets and kings. The couple were among scores of senior national figures who were killed in an air crash in Russia on Saturday.

Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Krakow, and thousands have joined an internet campaign protesting against the plan. The burial site was chosen by the late President's family and endorsed by the Polish Catholic Church.

Brandishing placards that asked: "Is Kazcynski a King?" the protesters marched around the cathedral chanting "Krakow says no!" Thousands of people also visited a Facebook page entitled "No to Kaczynski at the Wawel".

Wawel's crypt contains the bodies of Tadeusz Kosciusco, the father of Polish independence, several Polish kings and romantic poets, and a sarcophagus containing the body of Marshal Pilsudski, the country's heroic inter-war leader whose forces defeated an invading Soviet army in 1920.

Hanna Hebanowska, a 71-year-old retired university lecturer, and one of the protesters, told The Independent yesterday: "All my friends and I are very annoyed at this decision. The Wawel is for kings and Kaczynski is not a king. He was a very controversial president and to bury him there is entirely inappropriate."

During his tenure the conservative President Kaczynski was heavily criticised for attacking gay rights and trying to organise what was perceived as a witch hunt to denounce suspected Communist collaborators. He was also condemned for his abrasive attitude towards Germany and Russia. The mounting opposition to the planned Wawel burial raised the possibility that Sunday's solemn state funeral that will be attended by heads of state from the world over, including President Obama, could be marred by angry protests.

However the Polish government yesterday ruled out the possibility of changing the burial site for the late President and his wife, Maria Kaczynska. "The decision was taken by the family and this has to be respected," said Bronislaw Komorowski, the acting President.

He said that a date for fresh presidential elections would be announced immediately after the funeral.

The late President's twin brother Jaroslaw, a former conservative prime minister, is rumoured to want to step into his brother's shoes for the election that is now expected in June. There was speculation that Jaroslaw, who is renowned for being even more right wing than his brother, had decided on the burial site in an attempt to boost his family's standing in the run-up to the election.

Poland's main liberal daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborca condemned the decision as "hasty and misguided" in a front-page editorial yesterday. But Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Poland's Archbishop, defended the funeral arrangements. "I trust that society will accept this decision with understanding," he said. "During such occasions we should unite. Divisions serve no one."

On the third day of a week of mourning, thousands again waited for up to eight hours outside Warsaw's presidential palace, to pay their respects to the bodies of the late first couple lying in state under huge Polish flags.

A further 30 bodies recovered from the crash site were flown back to Warsaw yesterday.

Wawel Cathedral: Who's buried there?

* Tadeusz Kosciusko led an uprising against Russia and Prussia in 1794.

* Marshal Jozef Pilsudski secured independence at the end of the First World War.

* Considered by some to be the greatest Slavic poet, Adam Mickiewicz often wrote about Poland's oppression.

* General Wladyslaw Sikorski fled when the Nazis invaded and led opposition as Prime Minister in exile.