President of Poland killed in plane crash

Oct 6, 2009
[h1]Polish president killed in plane crash[/h1]
  • NEW: 97 people confirmed killed in the crash, according to Russian emergency minister
  • Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife killed in plane crash in western Russia
  • Plane was approaching the airport at Smolensk, Russia, believed to have hit trees
  • Pictures from the scene showed parts of the airplane charred and strewn through a wooded area

(CNN) -- 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. Russian emergency officials said 97 people died. Kaczynski was 60.

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

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the country would hold two minutes of silence at midday Sunday for the victims. Russia has declared Monday as a day of mourning.

World leaders pay tribute to Kaczynski

Kaczynski 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, said Piotr Paszkowski, a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry.

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

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head an inquiry commission and sent Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to the scene of the crash, the Kremlin said.

The flight recorders were found Saturday afternoon the Interfax news agency reported. "The flight recorders have been discovered. Their examination has already begun and it should shed light on the causes of the accident," Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

"The trajectory of the flight, which I traced twice today, indicates that there was a deviation from the runway, not only in terms of altitude, but also width of no less than 150 meters," Shoigu said.

Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party released a list of some of those it said were killed in the crash.

Biography: Lech Kaczynski

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 party also said that Slawomir Skrzypek, head of the National Bank of Poland, was killed.

"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."

What does plane crash mean for Poland?

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.

The plane was refurbished and repaired last year, according to the general director of the company that performed the service. Alexei Gusev, the general director of Aviakor Factory, told CNN that the plane received major refurbishing and repair in December 2009.

The work included rebuilding all of the engines, he said. His company also provided the Polish government with repair and maintenance parts for the next six years.

"The plane has been in use very little since that major repair," he said. "Speaking openly, we believe that this tragedy could not have been caused by equipment failure."

"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 Tusk in the second round of voting.

The two men did not have a good relationship. In Parliamentary elections in 2007, Tusk's Civic Platform beat the Law and Justice Party of Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was prime minister at the time.

Tusk put any political differences aside as he spoke to the nation Saturday.

"I wanted, in the name of all the Polish people, to pass words of condolences to the familiy of the Polish president, to his daughter, to his mother, to his brother, and to all the families of all the victims," Tusk said.

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."

Tusk said that as head of the government, he will take care of the families of the victims and handle the investigations.

"We won't extinguish the pain, but we have our duties, and the Polish state must function and will function," Tusk said.

He appealed to everyone in Poland to "behave in an appropriate way" during the time of mourning.

Condolences poured in from around the world Saturday, including from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles.

U.S. President Barack Obama, said: "President Kaczynski was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity.

"With him were many of Poland's most distinguished civilian and military leaders who have helped to shape Poland's inspiring democratic transformation. We join all the people of Poland in mourning their passing."

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 Kanat 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

CNN's Melissa Gray in London, England, and Max Tkachenko in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, contributed to this report.
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