President of Poland killed in plane crash to Russia

MOSCOW — A plane carrying the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders crashed in a heavy fog in western Russia on Saturday morning, killing everyone aboard.

Television showed chunks of flaming fuselage scattered in a bare forest near Smolensk, where the president was arriving for a ceremony commemorating the murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police after the Red Army invaded Poland.

The governor of Smolensk region, Sergei Antufiyev, said the plane did not reach the runway but instead hit the treetops and broke apart. His spokesman later said that air traffic controllers had recommended the president’s jet land at another airport because of bad visibility, but that the crew decided to land anyway. The crash came as a staggering blow to Poland, wiping out a large swath of the country’s leadership, including the commanders of all four branches of the military, the head of the central bank, the president and many of his top advisors. In the numb hours after the crash, leaders in Warsaw evoked the horror of the massacre at Katyn, which stood for decades as a symbol of Russian domination.

“It is a damned place,” former president Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24. “It sends shivers down my spine. First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport.”

“This is a wound which will be very difficult to heal,” he said.

Former president Lech Walesa, who presided over Poland’s transition from communism, cast the crash in similarly historic terms.

“This is the second disaster after Katyn,” he said. “They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished. Regardless of the differences, the intellectual class of those on the plane was truly great.”

The flag at the presidential palace in Warsaw was lowered as a crowd gathered, laying down flowers and lighting candles. According to Poland’s constitution, the leader of the lower house of parliament — now acting president — has 14 days to announce new elections, which must then take place within 60 days.

The plane was a Tupolev Tu-154, designed by the Soviets in the mid-1960s. Russia halted mass production of the jet roughly 20 years ago, and roughly 200 of them are still in service around the world, said Paul Hayes, director of accidents and insurance at Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London. He said the Polish president jet is one of the youngest of them.

Officials in Poland have repeatedly requested that the government’s aging air fleet be replaced.

Former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who survived a helicopter crash in 2003, told Polish news he had long predicted such a disaster. “I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet,” he said.

A press secretary for Mr. Antufiyev, the governor of Smolensk, said the landing took place under very bad visibility, and Russian air traffic controllers advised the crew to land in Minsk, but the crew decided to land anyway. The Polish news channel TVN24 reported that moments before the crash, air traffic controllers had refused a Russian military aircraft permission to land, but that they could not refuse permission to the Polish plane.

The crash site was cordoned off, but Russian media reported that the airplane’s crew made several attempts to land before a wing hit the treetops and the plane crashed about half a mile from the runway. Correspondents reporting from the scene said the plane’s explosion was so powerful that fragments of it were scattered as far as the outskirts of Smolensk, more than a mile from the crash site itself.

For Poland, the losses raise the question of how a country of 38 million can replace a whole political class. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski – one of the highest-ranking Polish leaders not on board the plane – told Poland’s Radio Zet that he was the one to inform Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who “was in tears when he heard about the catastrophe.”

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