MOSCOW // A plane carrying the Polish president Lech Kaczynski and a large contingent of the country's officials crashed yesterday as it was attempting to land in dense fog at an airport in western Russia, killing all 97 on board. The Polish president's Tupolev-154, arriving from Warsaw, clipped treetops shortly before 11am as it was attempting to land in the city of Smolensk, 300km west of Moscow, local officials said, causing the plane to break up, scattering enormous chunks of the burning fuselage throughout the forest.
Kaczynski and the Polish officials were to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the execution of 22,000 Polish officers and troops by Soviet forces in the Katyn forest, near the scene of yesterday's crash. The massacre decimated the Polish military and intellectual elite and has remained a source of tension between the two countries. Many in Poland accuse Russia of failing to fully acknowledge responsibility of Soviet forces under the dictator Josef Stalin for the crime. The 70th anniversary of the massacre was to be a gesture toward reconciliation.
Mr Kaczynski's wife, Marina, also died in the crash, as did the Polish army's chief of staff, Gen Franciszek Gagor; Slawomir Skrzypek, the president of Poland's central bank; and Andrzej Kremer, Poland's deputy foreign minister. Several Polish MPs and other officials were also aboard the flight. Lech Walesa, the former head of the Solidarity movement and president of Poland from 1990-1995, noted the tragic irony of the deaths of so many of Poland's ruling elite on their way to commemorate the Katyn anniversary.
"The Soviets killed Polish elites in Katyn 70 years ago," Mr Walesa told AFP. "Today, the Polish elite died there while getting ready to pay homage to the Poles killed there." Gen Lt Alexander Alyoshin, first deputy head of the Russian air force's general staff, said the pilots had not heeded several calls by air traffic controllers to halt the plane's descent and land at a reserve airport. "Nonetheless, the crew continued the descent," Mr Alyoshin said in televised comments. "Unfortunately, it ended in tragedy."
A witness told the Russian TV channel Rossia-24 that he saw the plane descending through the fog. "It tilted left, and the sound got increasingly louder. Then the airplane crashed. Two explosions followed." Authorities had cordoned off the crash site, where several top Russian officials had arrived. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, was to travel to the scene yesterday as well. Video footage of the site showed firefighters extinguishing flaming pieces of the fuselage in the middle of the forest.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian emergency situations minister, told Russian state television that the plane's black boxes had been recovered. "They are already being examined to shed some light on this catastrophe," Mr Shoigu said. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, addressed the Polish people in a televised statement, saying he and all Russian citizens were "stunned by the horrific tragedy". "In these days we were conducting commemorative events in Katyn, a site to mourn the victims of totalitarian times," Mr Medvedev said. "Lech Kaczynski was flying to Russia to personally pay tribute to the memory of the fallen Polish officers as president and as a citizen of his country. All Russians join you in grief and mourning."
Mr Medvedev said that Monday would be an official day of mourning in Russia. He ordered the formation of a commission headed by Mr Putin to investigate the circumstances of the crash, the Kremlin said in a statement. The Kremlin said Mr Medvedev had spoken by telephone with Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, and with Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the Polish parliament who is now the acting head of state following Mr Kaczynski's death. Mr Medvedev expressed his condolences to both men and promised a swift, thorough investigation, the Kremlin said.
In Moscow, dozens of people placed flowers outside the Polish embassy, where the Polish flag was flying half-mast. Mr Putin, who had met with Mr Tusk in Smolensk last Wednesday and was the first Russian or Soviet leader to commemorate the Katyn massacre together with Polish officials, looked visibly shaken in televised comments, calling the crash "a very serious tragedy". "We have never had anything like this," said Mr Putin, who sighed and took long pauses as he spoke.
An emergency headquarters had been set up in Moscow to assist the victims' relatives, Mr Putin said. "We will take the bodies to Moscow to be identified," he said. "Everything necessary will be organised to assist those who arrive." Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister whose deputy was killed in the crash, said he had informed Mr Tusk about the accident and that the Polish premier "was in tears when he heard about the catastrophe," the Polish television channel TVN 24 reported on its website.