Polish President Lech Kaczyński dies as his plane crashes in Russia

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

File photo of Lech Kaczyński
Image: Official website of the President of Poland.

Polish President Lech Kaczyński, travelling with 95 other people, has been killed when his plane crashed in Russia. Officials say the crash, which occurred when the plane was approaching a Russian airport on Saturday, was due to dense fog. Officials say there are no survivors.

The Polish Central Bank governor, Slawomir Skrzypek, and other members of the Polish government were amongst those onboard. The crash was near Smolensk airport in western Russia. Kaczyński's wife was killed along with him when the Tupolev Tu-154 went down; the trip to Russia was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish prisoners of war and civilians were killed by the Soviets.

Sergei Antufyev, the governor of the Smolensk area, said on Russian television that no one survived the crash; the claim was backed by Polish news agencies as well. "As it was preparing for landing, the Polish president's aircraft did not make it to the landing strip," he commented.

"According to preliminary reports, it got caught up in the tops of trees, fell to the ground and broke up into pieces. There are no survivors in that crash. We are clarifying how many people there were in the [Polish] delegation. According to preliminary reports, 85 members of the delegation and the crew," he added. The exact passenger was not known at first, with the conflicting numbers given by the Russian police. However, a full flight manifest "received from the Presidential Office" has been published by several news portals, giving 96 as the number of killed in the crash, including 8 members of the crew. The manifest is also available on the Office's official web page.

Television footage showed the burning plane with its charred parts scattered in the forest where it crashed. The plane crashed approximately 2 km (1.3 miles) from Smolensk airport. According to a witness relation, the plane, after the initial unsuccesfull landing attempt, tried to climb again, however it "was tilted heavily on one side" and hit a tree. The witness says there was no explosion, just a crash and huge flames.

"The plane caught fire after the crash. Teams began attempting to pull out passengers from the badly damaged airplane," commented a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry from Warsaw. The chief of Poland's military force, Franciszek Gagor and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer were among the victims.

With the Polish president deceased, the speaker of the lower house of the parliament, currently Bronislaw Komorowski, takes over as head of state, Komorowski's assistant Jerzy Smolinski told the Reuters news agency.

The Tupolev Tu-154, which was operated by the Polish Air Force, made its debut flight in 1990. 2,725 people have died in the 66 crashes involving this type of aircraft.

According to the flight manifest, those on board included:

Several other Polish government figures were in the plane as well. None of the passengers survived the crash.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was immediately appointed by Dmitry Medvedev, President of Russia as the head of the commision to investigate the crash. The latter also sent Sergei Shoigu, Minister of emergency situations of Russia to the site of the crash.