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Poland's president, other top leaders killed in plane crash in Russia

April 10, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) -- Polish President Lech Kaczynski and some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died on Saturday when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia, killing 96, 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 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 defense 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.

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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 Saturday, where he would meet Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was flying in from Warsaw.

The Polish presidential plane was headed for a military airport, North Smolensk, located near an aviation plant.

Andrei Yevseyenkov, spokesman for the Smolensk regional government, said Russian dispatchers asked the crew to land in either Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, or in Moscow because of the fog.

"But the crew made an independent decision to land in Smolensk," Yevseyenkov said in televised remarks.

No one answered the phone at the airport throughout the afternoon Saturday.

Russia's Emergency Ministry said there were 96 dead, 88 of whom were part of a Polish state delegation. Poland's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, said there were 89 people on the passenger list but one person had not shown up for the roughly 1 1/2-hour flight from Warsaw's main airport.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he had ordered a two-minute silence at noon (1000GMT) Sunday.

"The contemporary world has not seen such a tragedy," he said, offering his "deepest sympathy" to the president's family.

Tusk noted that condolences were pouring in from around the world and noted that "the first came from (Russian) Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev."

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. She went on to be a prominent member.

The deaths were not expected to directly affect the functioning of Polish government: Poland's president is commander in chief of its armed forces but the position's domestic duties are chiefly symbolic. The prime minister and other top government ministers were not aboard the plane.

Poland has long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but said they lacked the funds. The presidential Tu-154 had been overhauled in December in Russia, officials said.

Poland's parliament speaker, the acting president, declared a week of national mourning.

The plane tilted to the left before crashing, eyewitness Slawomir Sliwinski told Rossiya-24. He said there were two loud explosions when the aircraft hit the ground.

State news channel Rossiya-24 showed footage from the crash site, with pieces of the plane scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires burning in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the red and white national colors of Poland stuck up from the debris.

"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart," regional governor Sergei Anufriev said on Rossiya-24. "Nobody has survived the disaster."

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service.

The 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.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev both called Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to express their condolences and they promised to work closely with Poland in investigating the crash.

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