Polish President, His Wife, and Many Others Killed in Plane Disaster

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Agence France-Presse

Polish President, His Wife, and Many Others Killed in Plane Disaster

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A plane with Polish President Lech Kaczynsk -- pictured on April 8 -- and much of the nation's ruling elite have crashed landed in the Russian city of Smolensk killing all 96 people on board.

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.

 

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