Tags: EU | Poland | Plane | Crash

Poles Go Silent to Mourn Crash Deaths

Sunday, 11 Apr 2010 08:17 AM

 

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Thousands of people stood silent in the streets on Sunday to mourn President Lech Kaczynski and the dozens of political, military and religious leaders killed in a Russian plane crash that ravaged the top levels of Poland's elite.

Church bells pealed and emergency sirens shrieked for nearly a minute before fading into silence. Hundreds bowed their heads, eyees closed, in front of the presidential palace. Buses and trams halted in the streets.

The plane carrying the body of Kaczynski took off from the airport where they had been heading Saturday to honor 22,000 Polish officers slain by the Soviet secret police in 1940 in the western Soviet Union.

Kaczynski's coffin will be taken to the presidential palace after it arrives in Warsaw, the Polish government said. No date for a funeral has been set.

The death of the president and much of the state and defense establishment in Russia, en route to commemorating one of the saddest events in the neighboring nations' long, complicated history, was laden with tragic irony.

"He taught Poles how to respect our traditions, how to fight for our dignity, and he made he made his sacrifice there at that tragic place," said mourner Boguslaw Staron, 70.

Among the dead were Poland's army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, and heads of the air and land forces. At the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army in Warsaw, hundreds gathered for a morning Mass and left flowers and written condolences. Government spokesman Pawel Gras said the country's armed forces and state offices were operating normally despite the devastating losses.

The acting president, Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, said he would call for early elections within 14 days, in line with the constitution. The vote must be held within another 60 days.

Kacyznski had said he would seek a second term in presidential elections this fall but was expected to face an uphill struggle against Komorowski and his governing party, the moderate, pro-business Civic Platform. Kacyznski's nationalist conservative Law and Justice Party could benefit, however, from the support of a country mourning the loss of their president particularly with elections now set to take place by late June.

In Moscow, Russia's transport ministry said that Russian and Polish investigators had begun to decipher flight data recorders of the aging Soviet-built Tu-154 airliner that crashed Saturday while trying to land in deep fog in Smolensk, killing all aboard.

Russian officials had said 97 people were killed but revised the figure to 96. Poland's Foreign Ministry also confirmed the figure.

The Smolensk regional government said Russian dispatchers had asked the Polish crew to divert from the military airport there because of the fog and land instead in Moscow or Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus.

Former president, Solidarity founder and Peace Prize laureaute Lech Walesa, said it was too soon to cast blame.

"Someone must have been taking decisions on that plane. I don't believe that the pilot took decisions single-handedly," he told reporters. "That's not possible. I have flown a lot and whenever there were doubts , they always came to the leaders and asked for a decision, and based on that, pilots took decisions. Sometimes the decision was against the leader's instructions."

Polish-Russian relations had been improving recently after being poisoned for decades over the slaying of some 22,000 officers and others in Katyn forest and in other areas. About 4,000 Polish army officers were killed in the forest by Josef Stalin's NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB, in 1940

Russia never has formally apologized for the murders but Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to attend a memorial ceremony earlier this week in the forest was seen as a gesture of goodwill toward reconciliation. Kaczynski wasn't invited to that event because Putin, as prime minister, had invited his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk.

Kaczynski, 60, was the first serving Polish leader to die since exiled World War II-era leader Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski in a mysterious plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943.

Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw flew to Smolensk on Saturday evening and identified the bodies.

In Warsaw's historic center, large sections of the street were blocked to traffic to allow the flow of people expressing their grief. Mourners carried candles and roses and joined a long line to sign a book of condolences in the palace.

Also aboard the plane were the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the army chaplain, the head of the National Security Office, the deputy parliament speaker, the Olympic Committee head, the civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers.

Some on board were relatives of the officers slain in the Katyn massacre. Also among the victims was Anna Walentynowicz, whose firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workers' strike that spurred the eventual creation of the Solidarity freedom movement.

Walesa was among those who signed a condolence book in Gdansk.

"The elite of our country has perished," he said.

Children also placed simple drawings and messages of mourning: "I love our president," said one, alongside a picture of a human figure and a cross.

Polish television carried black-and-white montages of those killed in the crash and devoted nonstop coverage to the crash, including lingering looks at Kaczynski and his wife, Maria Kaczynska, who also died in the crash.

President Dmitry Medvedev declared Monday a day of mourning in Russia.

The Tu-154 was the workhorse of Eastern Bloc civil aviation in the 1970s and 1980s. Poland has long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but said it lacked the funds.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s in the past four decades, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service, largely because the planes do not meet international noise restrictions and use too much fuel.

The Polish presidential plane was fully overhauled in December, the general director of the Aviakor aviation maintenance plant in Samara, Russia, 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.

——

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press Writers Vanessa Gera and Matt Moore in Warsaw and Victoria Buravchenko in Smolensk, Russia contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS SUBS 3rd graf to correct that President's body en route only; UPDATES credit tag. AP Video.)

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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