MOSCOW – Polish President Lech Kaczynski and some of the country’s highest military and civilian leaders died when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia on Saturday, killing 96, officials said.
Russian and Polish officials said there were no survivors on the Soviet-era Tupolev, which was taking the president, his wife and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, National Bank President Slawomir Skrzypek and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer were also on board, the Polish foreign ministry said.
Russia’s Emergency Ministry said there were 96 dead, 88 part of a Polish state delegation. Poland’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, said there were 89 people on the passenger list but one person had not shown up.
“We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland,” Paszkowski said. “We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed.”
Polish-Russian relations had been improving of late after being poisoned for decades over the Katyn massacre.
Russia never has formally apologized for the murders of some 22,000 Polish officers, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s decision to attend a memorial ceremony earlier this week in the forest near Katyn was seen as a gesture of goodwill toward reconciliation. Rossiya-24 showed hundreds of people around the Katyn monument, many holding Polish flags, some weeping.
Putin has been put in charge of a commission investigating the crash, the Kremlin said.
In Warsaw, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called an extraordinary meeting of his Cabinet and the national flag was lowered to half-staff at the presidential palace, where people gathered to lay flowers and light candles.
Black ribbons appeared in some windows in the Polish capital.