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Poland Marks Plane Crash Anniversary As Tensions With Moscow Mount

Polish first lady Anna Komorowska prepares to lay flowers at the monument for the 96 victims of the April 2010 plane crash during a memorial service at the Smolensk aerodrome, the site of the disaster.
Polish first lady Anna Komorowska prepares to lay flowers at the monument for the 96 victims of the April 2010 plane crash during a memorial service at the Smolensk aerodrome, the site of the disaster.
A military band performed the Polish national anthem at Warsaw's historic Powazki Cemetery as Poland commemorated the death, one year ago, of President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in a plane crash in Russia.

Bronislaw Komorowski, who succeeded Kaczynski as Polish president, spoke at the Powazki commemoration.

"A whole year has passed since the time when the whole world collapsed for so many of us, for so many who are gathered at the Powazki Cemetery," he said. "Because a year has passed since the catastrophe at the Smolensk airport, where 96 of our countrymen, including President Lech Kaczynski, died on their way to the ceremonies in Katyn."

The plane crash shattered Poland's political elite, killing not only Kaczynski but dozens of top-ranking civilian and military officials from the Polish leadership.

Since then, the tragedy has also divided Polish society, as Kaczynski's conservative nationalism has given way to a more pragmatic stance on contentious issues like Warsaw's relations with the European Union and Russia.

Today's commemorations were a reminder of the fractious state of Polish politics. Many Poles avoided official ceremonies, preferring instead to gather at the presidential palace, where supporters of Kaczynski have made monthly pilgrimages since the crash.

A siren sounded as Poles gathered outside the palace held up Polish flags and posters bearing Kaczynski's image.

Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, boycotted official events in favor of the gathering at the presidential palace. The late president's daughter, Marta -- whose mother, Maria, also died in the crash -- attended the unofficial gathering as well.

'This Is The Place'

Marcin Dziub, who was among those attending the palace commemoration, said the gathering had drawn many Kaczynski loyalists.

"I've been coming here for the monthly anniversaries, and I think that this is the place for people who really want to commemorate the president and all who died in Smolensk," he said.

Kaczynski and the 95 others were killed when their Polish Air Force Tu-154 crashed in thick fog near the Russian city of Smolensk on April 10, 2010.

The new bilingual memorial stone, which makes no mention of the Katyn massacre

The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the delegation had been en route to a memorial ceremony for victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which thousands of Polish intellectuals and military officers were killed by Soviet secret police.

The massacre was covered up by Moscow until the late Soviet era and remains a source of friction between the two countries.

The ceremony had been seen as an opportunity for rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow after years of enmity.

Fresh Wounds

But the plane crash created fresh wounds, with Russian officials blaming the Polish pilots for the crash and -- more recently -- replacing a plaque at the crash site that makes no mention of the Katyn ceremony.

Smolensk Governor Sergei Antufyev today defended the switch of the plaque, saying it was fully justified. He said the spot is "where we mourn the victims of the plane crash" and "not the place where we mourn the Polish tragedy" at Katyn.

On April 11, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Smolensk. The two are scheduled to visit the Katyn memorial, marking the first time that the heads of state of both Poland and Russia have been present together at the site.

compiled from agency reports

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