Poland Mourns a Devastating Plane Crash

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Czarek Sokolowski / AP

People light candles and lay flowers in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, April 10, 2010, after Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash.

Poland has launched a week of national mourning, following the devastating plane crash in Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife as well as several other top-ranking officials. Ninety-six passengers were killed after the aged Russian aircraft, a Tupolev Tu-154, plunged into a forest near the airport in the Russian city of Smolensk. The Polish officials were there to mark the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Polish officers.

"The prime minister cried when he learnt the news," said Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski who informed Polish premier Donald Tusk, the leader of Poland's government, about the catastrophe.

Poles on Saturday were laying flowers and praying in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw as they began to mourn the deaths. Churches around the country announced services to commemorate the dead during a week of national mourning.

The Polish delegation was en route to commemorate thousands of Polish prisoners of war and intellectuals murdered at Katyn by Soviet forces in spring 1940, in an enduring symbol for Poles of their suffering under Soviet rule. The passengers included Poland's Army chief of staff, central banker, deputy foreign minister, deputy parliamentary speaker, several parliament members, generals and bishops as well as relatives of victims of the Katyn massacres.

"It's a tragic and cursed Katyn again," said former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski. "It is a terrible symbol again."

Kaczynski, 59, was active in the anti-communist opposition since the 1970s and advised the Solidarity hero Lech Walesa during the workers' strikes that led to the toppling of the communist regime in 1989. He later split with Walesa and was a co-founder of the rightist Law and Justice party with his twin brother, Jaroslaw. He resigned from the party when he became president in 2005 but continued to support it.

"I'm at a loss," said Walesa soon upon hearing about the catastrophe. "It is a big loss for the nation."

While the president's role is largely symbolic, the holder can veto government legislation. Lech Kaczynski infuriated the Tusk government several times by blocking legislation including health sector reform.

The death of Kaczynski, who with his brother was a dominant force in Polish politics, brings political uncertainty. A presidential election had been due in October but now must be held within two months, according to the constitution. Kaczynski was widely expected to seek another five-year term as president. Opinion polls had suggested he would lose to Tusk's centrist candidate, Bronislaw Komorowski (who, as speaker of the lower house of parliament, will take over the president's duties in the interim, under the terms of Poland's constitution). But Saturday's tragedy may have changed the political picture.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dispatched Emergency Ministry Sergei Shoigu to the site of the crash and formed a special commission headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to investigate the cause.

Tusk and Putin showed solidarity in the face of the tragedy by holding a joint press conference at the place of the catastrophe. Nevertheless, Poland has announced it will carry out its own investigation into the causes of the crash. So far the most probable cause is the error of judgment on the part of the pilot, who attempted a second landing at the Smolensk airport despite being warned by traffic controllers to divert to Moscow or Minsk because of thick fog. When descending, the plane clipped the tree line and broke in two, resulting in the deadly crash that has sent Poland into mourning.