Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed when his presidential plane crashed Saturday trying to land in thick fog in the Russian city of Smolensk.
There were no survivors of the crash of the Tupolev 154 plane. The head of the Polish military; the head of the presidential administration; the Polish central bank chief, members of parliament and the president’s wife were also killed.
“The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing,” Smolensk region Gov. Sergei Anufriyev told reporters. “Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart. Nobody has survived the disaster.”
Kaczynski was on his way to visit Katyn, the site of a 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish prisoners of war at the hands of Soviet secret police. The dead included officers, wealthy landowners and even scouts. The slaughter of the Poles was denied for decades by the Soviet government, and has remained a painful point of contention between Russia and Poland.
Kaczynski was to meet there with Polish veterans, family members of the slain prisoners and human rights monitors.
The crash dealt a stunning blow to Poland, felling many of its top leaders and imposing yet another national tragedy on a place that has long festered in Polish psychology as the epicenter of Soviet-era suffering.
“I just have this feeling that Katyn is a sort of diabolical place in Polish history,” said Tomasz Lis, a prominent Polish journalist and author. “It’s just unimaginable; it’s horrible.”
Officials were unclear on how many other passengers were aboard. Some reports said 132 were killed; others had the death toll at 87. Police told Interfax they were unsure how many were on the plane.
Concerned about navigating through the dense fog, ground controllers had urged the pilot to land in Moscow or Minsk rather than risk the poor visibility, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.
“The plane caught fire after the crash,” a Polish foreign minister spokesman told Reuters in Warsaw. “Teams began attempting to pull out passengers from the badly damaged airplane.”
The crash throws Polish politics into uncertainty. Kaczynski was to run for reelection in October; the vote is now likely to be moved to June.
The leading left-wing candidate, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, was believed to have been aboard the plane. And Polish law calls for another of the candidates, speaker of the lower chamber of parliament Bronislaw Komorowksi, to take over as head of state after the president’s death.
Kaczynski, 60, was elected to the presidency in 2005. A former justice minister and mayor of Warsaw, he was imprisoned in the 1980s for his opposition to communism.
Kaczynski and his twin brother were Soviet-era child actors who grew up to cut a prominent path through Polish politics. Kaczynski rose from the ranks of the Solidarity trade union before falling out bitterly with Lech Walesa.
From 2005-2007, in the early years of Kaczynski’s presidency, his twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski served as prime minister.
The circumstances of Kaczynski’s death carry a particular irony because much of his legacy is tied up with his interest in shedding light on some of the more painful moments of Poland’s past.
As mayor of Warsaw, he championed the construction of the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, a tribute to the crushed resistance to the Nazis in 1944. During his presidency, Kaczynski was known for referring to the heroic days of the Solidarity movement’s fight against communism.
“Poland needs to reconsider its mistakes,” he said in 2005. “But more than that, it needs a consensus based on truth.”
Earlier this week, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk traveled to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre. In what was regarded as a turning point in the two countries’ often frosty relations, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin also attended the ceremony.
Kaczynski, who was frequently critical of Moscow, was reportedly not invited to the ceremony.
Unlike Tusk’s visit, Kaczynski’s plans to attend Saturday’s commemoration were all but invisible in the Russian press. A few weeks ago, the Russian foreign ministry publicly griped that it had not received official word of Kaczynski’s visit, but had learned of it from press reports.
Shortly after the crash, Putin announced that he would head the investigation into its causes.