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Polish President, His Wife, and Many Others Killed in Plane Disaster
SMOLENSK, Russia – A plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and much of the nation's ruling elite crashed landed in the Russian city of Smolensk on Saturday killing all 96 people on board.
The Tupolev Tu-154 jet was carrying Kaczysnki and his wife, the military chief of staff, central bank governor, deputy foreign minister, members of parliament and other top officials to a ceremony for thousands of Polish troops massacred by Russian forces in World War II.
The Russia-built jet hit treetops in fog as it approached Smolensk, crashed and broke up in flames, Smolensk 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. "There were no survivors."
Russian news agencies said pilot error had come under immediate suspicion.
The wreckage was scattered across a forest with parts of it still on fire, Russian television images showed. Firefighters doused the flames. Related article: Polish MP to take presidential duties
Former Polish president Lech Walesa, who headed the Solidarity movement, called the crash "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.
The passengers included General Franciszek Gagor, chief of Poland's armed forces, central bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek, deputy foreign minister Andrzej Kremer, Kaczynski's wife Maria, and scores of MPs, historians and other officials, Polish officials said.
All were to attend a memorial service in the Katyn Forest, near the crash scene, where 22,000 top Polish officers and troops were killed by Soviet troops 70 years ago. It had been intended to help the reconciliation between Poland and Russia.
The jet's engines and a large chunk of its mud-caked tailfin, strewn over a large area in the fog-blanketed forest.
Firefighters hosed down burning sections of the plane while security personnel and civilian investigators inspected the wreckage.
Officials in Warsaw confirmed that Kaczynski was aboard the plane and Russian television broadcast video shot earlier Saturday of the president and his wife boarding the plane in Warsaw.
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.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev immediately appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head a commission of investigation and sent Russia's emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, to the site. Related article: Putin, Medvedev send condolences
The aircraft crashed a few hundred metres (yards) short of the runway at the Severny airport outside Smolensk, ITAR-TASS news agency reported, quoting rescuers at the site.
The flight data recorders had not yet been located but experts were on the scene and the search for them was under way, ITAR-TASS said.
Kaczynski, the identical twin brother of former prime minister Jaroslaw, was on his way to attend commemorative ceremonies for the Katyn massacre, which decimated Poland's military and intellectual elite 70 years ago.
The crash occurred three days after Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, together attended a memorial for the victims of the massacre at Katyn.
The Putin-Tusk meeting there was seen as a huge symbolic advance in Russia's often thorny relations with Poland.
World leaders immediately expressed shock at the disaster.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy said he "conveys all his sympathy to the family of president Kaczynski and to the families of all the victims and wishes to express his deep personal condolences and on behalf of the French people."
He paid homage to his Polish counterpart as a man "driven by ardent patriotism, who dedicated his life to his country."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "I am deeply shocked by the plane accident and the death of the Polish president."
"I think everyone around the world will be sending their sympathies to the people of Poland," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.