News & Current Affairs

April 10, 2010

Polish President Lech Kaczynski dies in plane crash

Polish President Lech Kaczynski dies in plane crash

President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other senior Polish figures have been killed in a plane crash in Russia.

Polish and Russian officials said no-one survived after the plane apparently hit trees as it approached Smolensk airport in thick fog.

Russian media reports said the pilots ignored advice from air traffic control to divert to another airport.

Poland’s army chief, central bank governor, MPs and leading historians were among more than 80 passengers.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the crash was the most tragic event of the country’s post-World War II history.

The Polish delegation was flying in from Warsaw to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Poles by Soviet forces during WWII.

Lech Kaczynski, file image

Obituary: Lech Kaczynski

The BBC’s Adam Easton, in Warsaw, says the crash is a catastrophe for the Polish people.

He says Prime Minister Tusk was reportedly in tears when he was told.

After an emergency meeting of ministers, Mr Tusk, who runs the day-to-day business of government, said a week of national mourning had been declared with two minutes of silence on Sunday at midday.

Mr Tusk added: “The Polish state must function and will function”.

Flowers and candles laid outside presidential palace in Warsaw -  10 April 2010

Thousands have gathered outside the presidential palace in Warsaw

A government spokesman said that according to the constitution there would be an early presidential election, and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, would be acting president.

In Warsaw, people gathered outside the presidential palace to lay flowers and light candles.

“I’m all broken up… it cannot be expressed in words,” Ewa Robaczewska told Reuters news agency.

Pilot error?

The Russian emergencies ministry told Itar-Tass news agency the plane crashed at 1056 Moscow time (0656 GMT) as it was coming in to land.

Smolensk regional governor Sergei Antufiev told Russian TV that no-one had survived.

Thousands of people have gathered outside the presidential palace to pay their respects.

There has been a spontaneous outpouring of grief, no matter what people thought of Lech Kaczynski. He was a divisive figure in Polish society, especially among younger Poles.

People are just stunned, visibly moved and in tears, whether they agreed with the president’s political views or not.

The largest church bell in Poland, at Krakow Cathedral, has been rung.

It never tolls generally, only for very, very solemn occasions. The last time it did so was for the death of the Polish pope, John Paul II, five years ago.

“According to preliminary reports, it got caught up in the tops of trees, fell to the ground and broke up into pieces,” he said. “There are no survivors in that crash.”

Polish TV worker Slawomir Wisniewski said he had seen the crash from his hotel near the airport.

“I saw through the fog, the aeroplane flying very low with the left wing pointing to the ground,” he said.

“I heard something being broken and then that thudding sound. Two flashes of fire next to each other.”

Russian media carried claims that the plane’s crew were at fault for the crash.

“Flight controllers… suggested that the plane be forwarded to Minsk but as far as we know the crew took an independent decision to land the plane in Smolensk,” Smolensk regional government spokesman Andrei Yevseyenkov told Russian TV.

Russian officials said 97 people were killed in the crash, including eight crew.

Polish officials said that 89 people had been scheduled to fly in the delegation to the Katyn commemoration, but one person missed the flight.

Mr Putin visited the crash site, after saying he would personally oversee the investigation into the crash.

“Everything must be done to establish the reasons for this tragedy in the shortest possible time,” he said.

He was to meet his Polish counterpart, Mr Tusk, in Smolensk.

Russian officials said all the bodies had been recovered from the scene and were being taken to Moscow for identification.

Russia’s Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu said both of the plane’s flight information recorders had been found and were being examined.

Controversial figure

The president was flying in a Tupolev 154, a Soviet-designed plane that was more than 20 years old.

SENIOR FIGURES KILLED
National leader:
President Lech Kaczynski and wife Maria
Other politicians:
Wladyslaw Stasiak chief of the president’s chancellery; Aleksander Szczyglo chief of the National Security Office; Slawomir Skrzypek National Bank of Poland chairman;
Jerzy Szmajdzinski deputy speaker of the lower house; Andrzej Kremer Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary of state; Stanislaw Komorowski deputy minister of national defence; Przemyslaw Gosiewski Law and Justice party deputy chair;
Military chief:
Franciszek Gagor chief of the General Staff
Cultural figures:
Andrzej Przewoznik head of Poland’s Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites; Tomasz Merta chief historical conservator

Source: TVP1, Warsaw

Our correspondent says there had been calls for Polish leaders to upgrade their planes.

Mr Kaczynski himself had suffered scares while using the plane in late 2008, when problems with the aircraft’s steering mechanism delayed his departure from Mongolia.

“Any flight brings with it a certain risk, but a very serious risk attaches to the responsibilities of a president, because it is necessary to fly constantly,” he was quoted as saying at the time.

But the head of Russia’s Aviakor aviation maintenance company told Russian TV the plane was airworthy, after his plant fully overhauled it in December.

As well as the president and his wife, Maria, a number of senior officials were on the passenger list.

They included the army chief of staff Gen Franciszek Gagor, central bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek and deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer.

World leaders including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered their condolences to Poland.

Mr Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, a former prime minister and now head of the main opposition party, was said to be “devastated”, an aide told AFP news agency.

Lech Kaczynski, who had fewer powers than the prime minister but had a significant say in foreign policy, was a controversial figure in Polish politics.

He had advocated a right-wing Catholic agenda, opposed rapid free-market reforms and favoured retaining social welfare programmes.

Map of crashed flight
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August 20, 2008

US and Poland sign defence deal

US and Poland sign defence deal

The US and Poland have signed a deal to locate part of the US’s controversial missile defence system on Polish soil.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travel led to Warsaw for the ceremony, after 18 months of negotiations.

The deal has angered Russia, which has warned the base could become a target for a nuclear strike.

says the system will protect the US and much of Europe against missile attacks from “rogue elements” in the Middle East such as Iran.

The agreement, which has yet to be ratified by the Polish parliament, was signed by Ms Rice and Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the negotiations had been “tough, but friendly”, adding that the deal would make both Poland and the US more secure.

Ms Rice said the signing of the document was an extraordinary occasion, adding that the agreement would help NATO, Poland and the US respond to “the threats of the 21st Century”.

Speaking during the signing ceremony at the presidential palace in Warsaw, she emphasized that the missile system was “defensive and aimed at no-one”.

‘Exacerbating tensions’

While Washington believes placing 10 interceptor missiles on a disused military base near Poland’s Baltic Sea coast will protect much of NATO against possible long-range attacks, Warsaw sees threats much closer to home.

That is why it demanded – in exchange for hosting the base – short-range Patriot missiles for its own air defences and a guarantee that the US will come to its assistance in the event of an attack, our correspondent adds.

INTERCEPTOR MISSILES
Missile Defense Agency)
Look like ordinary missiles, but warheads are not loaded
Intended to destroy target with kinetic energy
Closing speed at interception is 24,000km/h (15,000mph)

The demands had delayed the deal’s completion, but the conflict in Georgia gave the negotiations more impetus.

Both the US and Poland say the system is not aimed against Russia.

But the agreement has infuriated Moscow, our correspondent adds.

Russia’s deputy chief of general staff, Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said last week the plans for a missile base in Poland “could not go unpunished”.

“It is a cause for regret that at a time when we are already in a difficult situation, the American side further exacerbates the situation in relations between the United States and Russia,” he said.

Moscow has argued the project will upset the military balance in Europe and has warned it will be forced to redirect its missiles at Poland.

But Polish President Lech Kaczynski stressed the missile defence shield was purely a defensive system and not a threat.

“For that reason, no-one who has good intentions towards us and towards the Western world should be afraid of it,” he said on Wednesday.

Before the conflict in Georgia there was a reasonable amount of popular opposition in Poland to the missile defence deal.

But new surveys show that for the first time a majority of Poles support it, with 65% expressing fear of Russia.

Hitting a bullet

The interceptors look like ordinary missiles, stored in silos, with highly automated warheads that are not loaded with any explosives.

If fired, the missile is intended to home in on and destroy its target, above the atmosphere, due to the kinetic energy of the collision.

But the closing speed of interceptor and target will be 24,000km/h (15,000mph), making the task more difficult than hitting a bullet with another bullet.

The US has spent more than $100bn (£54bn) in the last two decades on its controversial project to develop defences against ballistic missiles.

Critics say that, despite all that money, the Pentagon still has not proved the system can work in realistic conditions.

Last month, the US signed an agreement with the Czech Republic to base tracking radars there as part of the defence system.

Washington wants the sites to be in operation by about 2012.

US missile defences

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