Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president (photo, from aljazeera.net), and several members of his government have died in a plane crash near Smolensk airport in western Russia.
96 people, mostly Polish officials, were killed on Saturday when the president’s Tupolev Tu-154 plane went down in heavy fog, said Russia’s emergency ministry.
The Polish delegation was going to the city of Smolensk in order to take part in reconciliatory ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where more than 20,000 Poles were killed by russian forces.
The crash was described as the “most tragic event in Poland’s postwar history” by Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, who said he would travel immediately to Smolensk.
Early presidential election
In the mean time, in Warsaw, the Polish capital, authorities announced an early presidential election would be held soon.
“In line with the constitution, we will have to hold an early presidential poll,” said Pawel Gras, a government spokesman.
“For now, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, is automatically … the acting president.”
The constitution states that the poll must be held before the end of June.
On board of the plane were fifteen parliamentarians, along with Slawomir Skrzypek, the head of Poland’s central bank, Andrzej Kremer, the deputy foreign minister and Franciszek Gagor, the army chief of staff.
Kaczynski’s wife, Polish church leaders and families of Katyn massacre victims were also killed.
Sergei Antufiev, the governor of Russia’s Smolensk region, told official media that no one survived the crash.
“It clipped the tops of the trees, crashed down and broke into pieces,” Antufiev told Russia-24 television.
Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and prime minister, offered their condolences to the people of Poland and pledged a thorough investigation into the incident. (map from bbc.co.uk)
Both flight recorders, commonly known as “black boxes”, have been found by the authorities.
“Both the data and the voice recorders were found at the crash site. The analysis of them, which will shed light on the reasons for the disaster, has already begun,” Sergei Shoigu, the Russian emergency minister, was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Pilot error may have been the cause of the crash according to local authorities.
“The pilot was advised to land in Minsk, but decided to land in Smolensk,” said Andrei Yevseyenkov, a spokesman for the local government.
Chris Yates, an aviation expert, told Al Jazeera that the Tupolev Tu-154 is capable of operating in extreme weather conditions and able to land on unpaved airstrips.
“These things are built like tanks,” he said via email correspondence. “From early reports, it would seem to be a fluke accident.”
Komorowski, Poland’s acting head of state, declared a week of mourning after the crash.
“We are united – there is no [political] left or right – we are united in national mourning,” he said.
The news came as a shock to the Polish people, said Rafal Kiepuszewski, a Polish journalist.
“The fact that much of the Polish political establishment appears to have been wiped out on this single flight has really come as a profound shock to the Polish nation,” he said.
A crowd began to gather in front of the presidential palace as soon as the news was confirmed. People were laying flowers and lighting candles. (photo, from bbc.co.uk)
Poland had been due to hold a presidential election in October, when Kaczynski was likely to have run against the liberal Komorowski.
President of Poland since 2005, the conservative Kaczynski had a reputation for being incorruptible and was a popular figure.
Before becoming president, he served as the mayor of Warsaw.