Accessibility links

Poland In Deep Mourning After Crash

Soldiers carry President Lech Kaczynski's coffin on April 11, 2010 at the airport in Warsaw

Soldiers carry President Lech Kaczynski's coffin on April 11, 2010 at the airport in Warsaw

(RFE/RL) -- Polish President Lech Kaczynski's remains have returned to Warsaw as a stunned nation continued to mourn a day after he and much of the country's political elite perished in a plane crash in Russia.

Kaczynski's daughter Marta, his twin brother Jaroslaw, Acting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, and Prime Minister Donald Tusk greeted the coffin, which was draped in the red and white Polish flag at Warsaw's military airport. Marta, whose mother Maria also perished in the crash, met her father's remains first, kneeling before the coffin with her forehead resting on it.

Tens of thousands of people lined the route where a hearse carried the coffin to the presidential palace, softly singing the national anthem and tossing flowers. Church bells tolled as the hearse arrived at the presidential palace, where the entrance gate is adorned with candles, crucifixes, and Polish flags left by mourners.

Kaczynski, the heads of the country's military services, and many others of Poland's ruling elite were killed in a plane crash in western Russia on April 10. All 97 on board the presidential plane died when it clipped the tops of trees in heavy fog before crashing. The passengers were on their way to the city of Smolensk to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of more than 20,000 Poles, mostly top military officers, in the Katyn forest nearby.

Across the deeply devout and predominantly Roman Catholic nation, millions of mourners packed into churches to pray for the dead from what's being called the biggest tragedy since World War II. At an open air mass in Krakow, crowds huddled and sang in a cold rain under a sea of umbrellas.

'We Are Suffering With You'

Russian air traffic controllers said they knew the plane -- a 20 year-old, Soviet-built Tupolev 154 -- was flying too low, but that the pilots failed to respond to warnings. Russian investigators said they had ruled out technical problems with the aircraft as a cause of the crash.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said he would personally head the investigation into the crash. During a visit to the crash site with other top officials on the evening of April 10, a somber-looking Putin called the crash a "tragedy" for Poland and Russia.

"We are suffering with you," Putin said. "Speaking on behalf of the Russian government, I convey our sincere sympathies to all of Poland and all Poles."

Russia, along with the European Union, has declared April 12 a day of mourning.

Generators powering high-powered floodlights roared at the crash site on the evening of April 10 as Putin escorted -- and at one point embraced -- Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to the site.

Polish television broadcast images of Kaczynski's identical twin brother, former Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski, dressed in a long black coat kneeling at the crash site, where he laid flowers.

Dozens of investigators are poring over the crash site. Russian officials say they're already examining the plane's flight recorders.

In Warsaw, crowds have converged outside the presidential palace where some sang the Polish national anthem as thousands of candles were lit under a large cross.

Sirens wailed and bells clanged during a two-minute silence today that started a week of mourning.

World leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have offered their condolences to Poland.

Kaczynski, a right-wing nationalist and a fierce critic of Russia, was a divisive figure in Polish politics. The onetime ally of former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa later founded the conservative Law and Justice party with his brother. The president's role is largely symbolic, but Kaczynski often clashed with Tusk's government due to his vetoing of key government legislation. He blocked social welfare, media and other reforms.

'Let's All Pull Together'

But the tragedy appears to have superseded political differences for the time being. The new acting president, parliamentary speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, said in a nationally televised address on April 10 that Kazcynski's death shouldn't divide the country between left and right.

"My dearest thoughts, prayers, and personal sorrow are directed mainly to the families of the victims -- including the family of President Kaczynski, to his mother, daughter, and brother," Komorowski said.

"In these difficult days for our nation, let's all pull together."

The death of Kaczynski and the others on board his plane is highly sensitive for relations between Poland and Russia. Moscow refused for decades to acknowledge the KGB's role in the Katyn massacre, which the Kremlin blamed on Nazi forces during World War II. The issue is deeply painful for Poles and has helped sour fragile relations between the two countries.

But Prime Minister Tusk has sought to improve ties between the two countries and was the first Polish leader to be invited to attend official ceremonies marking the Kaytn massacre on April 7, which Putin also attended.

Kazcynski was not invited, and was heading to a separate ceremony on April 10. Other passengers on his plane included Army Chief of Staff Franciszek Gagor, central bank chief Slawomir Skrzypek, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer, and members of parliament.

In Warsaw, Tusk said the government would continue its work despite the national tragedy. He said he would set a date for a new presidential election after talking with the country's political parties.

Questions are beginning to be asked about how and why Kaczynski's plane -- which officials had complained about in the past -- crashed. But for now, a stunned country is concentrating on absorbing its devastating loss.

with agency reports