Polish leader, 96 others dead in Russia jet crash
Polish President Lech Kaczynski and some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died yesterday when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia, killing 97, officials said.
Russian and Polish officials said there were no survivors on the 26-year-old Tupolev, which was taking the president, his wife and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre in Katyn forest of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.
The crash devastated the upper echelons of Poland's political and military establishments. 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.
Although initial signs pointed to an accident with no indication of foul play, the death of a Polish president and much of the Polish state and defence establishment in Russia en route to commemorating one of the saddest events in Poland's long, complicated history with Russia was laden with tragic irony.
Reflecting the grave sensibilities of the crash to relations between the two countries, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally assumed charge of the investigation. He was due in Smolensk later yesterday, where he would meet Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was flying in from Warsaw.
"This is unbelievable - this tragic, cursed Katyn," Kaczynski's predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said on TVN24 television.
It is "a cursed place, horrible symbolism," he said. "It's hard to believe. You get chills down your spine."
Andrei Yevseyenkov, spokesman for the Smolensk regional government, said Russian dispatchers asked the crew to divert from the military airport in North Smolensk and land instead in Minsk, the capital of neighbouring Belarus, or in Moscow because of the fog.