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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polish President Lech Kaczynski Killed In Russian Plane Crash

Polish President, Wife Killed In Plane Crash

Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed early Saturday along with his wife, several top military officials, and the head of the national bank when their plane crashed at a western Russian airport, officials said.

"There are no survivors," said Sergey Antufyev, the governor of Smolensk, where the plane was trying to land when it crashed.

A spokesman for Poland's Foreign Ministry, Piotr Paszkowski, said earlier that it was probable that everyone on board was killed.

Information varied on how many people were on board the plane. The Polish Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry said 89 people died in the crash. The Russian Investigation Committee said there were 132 people on the plane.

Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski took over as acting president and declared it "a time for national mourning."

The president, 60, had been traveling with the Polish delegation to Russia for the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish prisoners of war in the village of Katyn. Some 20,000 Polish officers were executed there during World War II.

The Polish military plane originated in Warsaw, the Polish Defense Ministry said. It was approaching the airport at Smolensk -- just a few miles east of Katyn -- and probably hit some trees at the end of the runway, Paszkowski said.

The Investigation Committee of the Russian prosecutor's office said the plane, a Tupolev-154, was trying to land in heavy fog.

Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party released a list of some of those it said were killed in the crash. They included Aleksander Szczyglo, the head of the National Security Office; Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the deputy parliament speaker; Andrzej Kremer, the deputy foreign minister; and Gen. Franciszek Gagor, the army chief of staff, according to the party.

"The entire top military brass, including the chief of defense and all the services, were on the plane," said Tomas Valasek, of the Center for European Reform. "If that is true, then you're looking at a situation, in effect, of the decapitation of the military services."

Pictures from the scene showed parts of the airplane charred and strewn through a wooded area. Some pieces, including one of the wheel wells, were upside down.

The crash happened around 10:50 a.m. (2:50 a.m. ET) on the outskirts of the town of Pechorsk, just outside of Smolensk, the Investigation Committee said.

"This is a time of great national tragedy," Komorowski told reporters. "At this time there are no political differences, left or right. This is a time of national mourning."

Kaczynski had been president since December 2005 after he defeated rival Donald Tusk in the second round of voting. Tusk is currently prime minister.

Crowds gathered at the presidential palace in Warsaw to lay flowers and light candles for the president, whose death raises questions for Poland's government.

"Everything has changed today," said Jan Mikruta, a reporter for TV Polsat.

Tusk and Polish Cabinet ministers were holding a special meeting Saturday morning to discuss the situation, said a spokeswoman for the Polish Parliament, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to speak publicly.

Elections must now be held within 60 days, said Dariusz Rosati, Poland's former foreign minister.

"There is going to be a huge gap in public life in Poland," said resident Magdalena Hendrysiak. "The most important people are dead."

At the same time, Hendrysiak said, the president's death may have a unifying effect.

"I think it will be one of those situations that no one will care about their political preferences," she told CNN. "I think we're going to end up as pretty united in the face of such a tragedy."

Valasek pointed out, however, that the Polish president is the head of state, not head of government -- meaning essential services will continue to run.

"The role of the Polish president is not quite ceremonial ... he has some very real powers, but at the end of the day, the day-to-day running of the government is in the hands of the prime minister and the (cabinet) ministers," Valasek said. "Continuity is assured in ways that would not necessarily be assured in the case of the death of the U.S. president."

Condolences poured in from around the world Saturday, including from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was campaigning in Scotland.

Brown praised the contributions Kaczynski had made to Polish independence.

"This is a horrible tragedy," said Philip Crowley, the U.S. assistant secretary for public affairs. "We extend to the people of Poland our deepest condolences."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he learned of Kaczynski's death with "great emotion and a deep sadness" and expressed his sympathy to the families of the president and other victims.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai also expressed his condolences, as did the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"I offer my deepest condolences to the Polish people and to the families of those killed in this tragic accident. Our hearts go out to you in this difficult time," said OSCE Chairman Kaunat Saudabayev, who is also the secretary of state and foreign minister of Kazakhstan.

Valasek said the crash is a tragic coincidence, since the Polish officials were on their way to commemorate the deaths of top Polish officials at Katyn 70 years ago.

"The very fact that he was on his way to (commemorate) the massacre suggested that Polish-Russian relations, which of course had been very poor over the past 20 years, were on the way towards improvement," Valasek said. "A shared tragedy of this sort could give a boost to further improvement in Polish-Russian relations, which ... were on the mend, and this tragedy might accelerate that trend."

The partial list of those killed published on the Web site of President Lech Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party includes:

Lech Kaczynski -- Polish president

Maria Kaczynska -- The president's wife

Ryszard Kaczorowski -- Poland's last president-in-exile

Aleksander Szczyglo -- head of the National Security Office

Pawel Wypych -- presidential aide

Mariusz Handzlik -- presidential aide

Jerzy Szmajdzinski -- deputy parliament speaker

Andrzej Kremer -- Deputy Foreign Minister

Gen. Franciszek Gagor -- head of the army chief of staff

Andrzej Przewoznik -- minister in charge of WWII memorials

Slawomir Skrzypek -- head of the National Bank of Poland

Janusz Kurtyka -- head of the National Remembrance Institute

Przemyslaw Gosiewski -- lawmaker

Zbigniew Wassermann -- lawmaker

Grzegorz Dolniak -- lawmaker

Janusz Kochanowski -- civil rights commissioner

Bishop Tadeusz Ploski -- army chaplain

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Sources: CNN, The Daily Beast, Google Maps

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