April 10th, 2010
08:48 AM ET

Polish president killed in plane crash

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.

A spokesman for Poland's Foreign Ministry, Piotr Paszkowski, said earlier that it was probable that everyone on board was killed.

Kaczynski was 60.

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

The president 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, Paszkowski said.

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

Information varied on how many people were on board the plane. The Polish Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry said 89 people died in the crash. The Russian Investigation Committee said there were 132 people on the plane.

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

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.

"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 Donald Tusk in the second round of voting. Tusk is currently prime minister.

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."

Condolences poured in from around the world Saturday, including from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was campaigning in Scotland.

Brown praised the contributions Kaczynski had made to Polish independence.

"This is a horrible tragedy," said Philip Crowley, the U.S. assistant secretary for public affairs. "We extend to the people of Poland our deepest condolences."

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 Kaunat 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."

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soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. desert voice

    It is teriible catastrophe! When I first learned, I couldn't keep tears streeming into my eyes. My condolences to the families of President Kaczyński and all others who died in this accident. Kaczyński and Mr. Putin never saw eye to eye. I hope that a thorough investigation will take place, why the plane was cleared for landing in a total fog. I do not believe that it was right to allow tis landing without special lights. It's doesn't seem right. The pilot, one of the best in Poland (Polish pilots are proverbial), saw that he wasn't in the right place when the wheels touched, and he instantly tried to lift the plane back into thei air, touching a tree with the landing gear, and precipitating to the ground on fire. Russia was draging her feet in allowing President Kaczyński to participate in the Katyń ceremony alongside with Putin. Numerous times an official announcement had been made that "he wasn't invited." Did they knew about the heavy fog in Smoleńsk at certain hours? I am reminded of what happened to gen. Władysław Sikorski, when his plane was cleared for departure by "mysterious" mechanics, opnly to fall into the sea three minutes afterwards. I believe that this horrible tragedy must be investigated!

    April 10, 2010 at 6:56 am | Report abuse |
  2. Gabriel Solnica

    my heart goes out to the kaczynski family and all families of the victims from the plane crash on route to the katyn commemorative ceremonies...i hope this tragedy gives jaroslaw kaczynski a reason to run for office...the likes of which we have not seen since bobby kennedy ran after his brother's assassination...

    April 10, 2010 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  3. Gabriel Solnica

    i would personally never fly any Tu-154, a russian made piece of flying garbage...maybe now the polish government will scrap and replace their aging aircraft fleet, with say, boeing!!!!

    April 10, 2010 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. desert voice

    A drama like this the world has not seen! The Nation's President is dead. Poland is left without the entire Command of the Army! The Commander-in Chief, Gen. Franciszek Gągor, is dead, The Commander of the Infantry, Gen. Tadeusz Buk, is dead, the Commander of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Andrzej Karweta, is dead, the Commander of the Special Forces, Gen. Włodzimierz Potasiński, is dead, the Chief of the Field Operations of the Army, Gen. Bronisław Kwiatkowski, is dead, the Commander of the Air Force, Gen. Andrzej Błasik, is dead, the Vice-Minister of National Defense, Stanisław Komorowski, is dead, even the Chaplain of the Army, Bishop Gen. Tadeusz Płoski, is dead. In one moment, the whole Poland was deprived of the entire Command of the Armed Forces! Such thing has never been seen in the world! But the People and the Madonna of Częstochowa remain, ready to defend Poland!

    April 10, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JoJo

    No doubt this accident need to be investigated. But than see who is leading the investigation, Putin himself. That's not going anywhere.

    April 20, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |