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By Jan Cienski in Warsaw and Catherine Belton in Moscow
Published: April 10 2010 15:15 | Last updated: April 10 2010 16:56
Lech Kaczynski, Poland's president, was killed on Saturday morning when the airliner carrying him and a large delegation crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk; there were no survivors, said Poland's foreign ministry.
The 20-year-old Russian-built Tu-154 airliner crashed at 10:56 am local time after clipping some trees as it tried to land in foggy conditions. Television footage from the scene showed the burnt remnants of the airplane scattered among the leafless trees near the military airport on the outskirts of Smolensk.
As well as Mr Kaczynski, 60, and his wife, Maria, the aircraft was carrying a government delegation that included Ryszard Kaczorowski, the former president of Poland's London-based government-in-exile, Slawomir Skrzypek, the central bank governor, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the presidential candidate of the left-wing Democratic Left Alliance, as well as the senior commanders of Poland's ground, air, naval and special forces, bishops, and other dignitaries.
The dead included 88 members of the delegation.
They were flying to Russia to take part in commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the killing of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in 1940. The best-known murder site, Katyn, where 4,000 Poles were killed, lies just outside Smolensk.
“We stand humbly in the face of fate, which decided in an unfathomable way to link this place with another national tragedy,” said Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament, who took over Mr Kaczynski''s duties, as the Polish constitution dictates.
Poland’s central bank is carrying out its regular duties without interruption despite the death of Mr Skrzypek, the bank said in a statement.
The governor’s responsibilities have been taken over by the first deputy governor, Piotr Wiesiolek, the statement added.
The dead also included many of the senior members of the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party that Mr Kaczynski helped found in 2001, except for the president's twin brother, Jaroslaw, who was in Warsaw.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, spoke with Mr Komorowski, the Polish speaker of parliament who took over Mr Kaczynski’s duties, by telephone to express the deep sympathy of the entire Russian people for what he called a “terrible unprecedented tragedy”. “Russia shares the deep sorrow and mourning of Poland,” the Russian president told Mr Komarowski.
He said he and the rest of Russia had been deeply shocked by the news and said he was calling for a special government commission to investigate the catastrophe in cooperation with the Polish authorities to be headed by Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister.
“There is nothing to say, one can only deeply sympathise with the families of the dead,” Mr Putin said.
Donald Tusk, the prime minister, has called an emergency session of the cabinet for this afternoon. He also said he was flying to Smolensk, where he will meet with Mr Putin.
“This is my personal tragedy, but we have to continue working. The state will continue to function,” said Mr Tusk.
Memorial religious services were scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and the flag flying over the presidential palace in central Warsaw has been lowered to half-staff. Crowds of people, some of them crying, gathered to lay flowers outside the palace in central Warsaw.
According to Russian media, the conditions at the airport, used mainly be the Russian military, were so bad that a Russian plane carrying a security detail was turned back to Moscow, and controllers recommended that the Polish airliner divert either to Minsk or to Moscow. The airport was reportedly not equipped with modern navigation equipment to help with difficult landings. The aircraft crashed after three failed attempts to land.
Mr Kaczynski began his involvement in the anti-communist opposition in the 1970s, and was a leading activist during the formation of the Solidarity labour union in 1980. Interned during martial law in 1981, Mr Kaczynski one of the leading opposition negotiators during round table talks that led to the end of communist rule in 1989.
He was elected president in 2005, and spent much of his term pursuing policies aimed at strengthening Poland's position against Germany and Russia, and cultivating the memory of Poland's suffering during the Second World War. He had planned to be a candidate in this year's presidential elections.
Under Poland's constitution, new elections have to be held within 60 days in the event of the death of the incumbent.
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