Polish president, 97 entourage die in air crash in western Russia

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and up to 131 others traveling with him to commemorate the mass killing of Polish officers during World War Two died on Saturday when his plane crashed on landing in western Russia.

"On Saturday, President Kaczynski's Tu-154 airplane crashed when landing near the town of Pechorsk, Smolensk region, in heavy fog," Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Russian Prosecutor General's Investigations Committee said. "There were 132 people on board the plane, including the president and his spouse."

In a conflicting report, a spokesperson for Russian Emergencies Ministry said there were 96 people on board.

"According to the latest information, there were 96 people on board including 88 [from the] official delegation," the Emergencies Ministry spokesperson said.

Both sources said there were no survivors.

Russia's Rossiya-24 television showed footage of the crash scene showing wreckage of the plane scattered across a field with the airplane's wing raising high like a monument.

"The crash to the ground was so strong that the plane burst into small pieces," the Rossiya-24 correspondent at the scene said.

Officials said that apart from the presidential couple and the crew, Kaczinski's Soviet-made Tu-154 three-engine mid-range jet plane was carrying an official delegation of senior officials, including the chief of the armed forces general staff and central bank head. There was no information who else was on board.


Polish Foreign Ministry press secretary Petr Paszkowski said the plane crashed some 300-400 meters from the runway after catching tops of surrounding trees. A Russian security source told RIA Novosti that "a mistake by the crew during landing maneuvers had supposedly caused the crash."

The Russian Prosecutor General's investigations committee later formally opened investigation into the crash.

"The investigation is looking into various versions of what happened, including unfavorable weather, human factor, technical malfunctions and others," it said in a statement.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to head a commission looking into the crash and dispatched to the scene Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, and top aviation and investigation officials.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has called an emergency government meeting in line with the death of President Kaczynski on Saturday.

"All of the Polish ministers are on their way to Warsaw," a spokesman for the government press service said in Warsaw.

In line with the president's death, Parliamentary speaker Bronislaw Komorowski has become the acting president in Poland.

Tusk is presently on his way to Warsaw from Gdansk.

Echo of Katyn drama

The 1940 massacre by the Soviet secret police of thousands Polish officers seized by the Red Army, when it invaded the country in the first days of World War Two in September 1939, has become the most painful page in relations between the two Slavic nations.

Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk jointly paid homage to the dead in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, the scene of the tragedy.

Kazcynski was one of the strongest critics of post-Soviet Russia in Poland, suspecting Moscow of imperial ambitions. He advocated deploying in Poland elements of U.S. missile shield - a plan, which has provoked Russia's fury but was later scrapped by new U.S. President Barack Obama.

Head of foreign relations committee in the Russian parliament's lower house, Konstantin Kosachyov, described Kaczynski's death as a "tragedy" regardless of his political views.

"This is a huge tragedy for the whole Polish people no matter what political views he had ... we mourn with the Polish people," he told RIA Novosti.

"Katyn is claiming new victims," he added.

MOSCOW, April 10 (RIA Novosti)

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