Polish president dies in plane crash

Military and civilian leaders also among dozens killed in Russia plane crash.

Kaczynski poland plane crash 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Kaczynski poland plane crash 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Polish President Lech Kaczynski and over 100 of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died Saturday morning when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia, officials said.
Russian and Polish officials said there were no survivors on the Soviet-era Tupolev, which was taking the president, his wife and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police at the beginning of World War II.
On board were the army chief of staff, national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers, the Polish foreign ministry said.
"We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland," Paszkowski said. "We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed."
State news channel Rossiya-24 showed footage from the crash site, with pieces of the plane scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires burning in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the red and white national colors of Poland stuck up from the debris.
"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart," the governor of the Smolensk region Sergei Anufriev said on Rossiya-24. "Nobody has survived the disaster."
The presidential Tu-154 was at least 20 years old. Polish officials have long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but said they lacked the funds. According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service.
The presidential plane was fully overhauled in December in Russia, the general director of the Aviakor plant in Samara told Rossiya-24. The plant repaired the plane's three engines, retrofitted electronic and navigation equipment and updated the interior, Alexei Gusev said. He said there could be no doubts that the plane was flightworthy.
Polish-Russian relations had been improving of late after being poisoned for decades over the Katyn massacre.
Russia never has formally apologized for the murders of some 22,000 Polish officers, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to attend a memorial ceremony earlier this week in the forest near Katyn was seen as a gesture of goodwill toward reconciliation. Rossiya-24 showed hundreds of people around the Katyn monument, many holding Polish flags, some weeping.
President Dmitry Medvedev sent his condolences and promised to work closely with Poland in investigating the crash.
"Russiashares the grief and mourning of Poland," Medvedev said in a statementposted on the Kremlin Web site. "Please accept the most sincerecondolences to the Polish people, words of compassion and support torelatives and friends of those who perished."
Putin has been put in charge of a commission investigating the crash, the Kremlin said.
InWarsaw, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called an extraordinary meeting ofhis Cabinet and the national flag was lowered to half-staff at thepresidential palace, where people gathered to lay flowers and lightcandles.
The nationalist conservative was the twin brother ofPoland's opposition leader, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.Kaczynski's wife, Maria, was an economist. They had a daughter, Marta,and two granddaughters.
Kaczynski had said he would seek asecond term in presidential elections this fall. He was expected toface an uphill struggle against Parliament speaker BronislawKomorowski, the candidate of Tusk's governing Civic Platform party.
According to the constitution, Komorowski would take over presidential duties.
The country sent troops to the US-led war in Iraq and recently boosted its contingent in Afghanistan to some 2,600 soldiers.