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Polish President Lech Kaczynski plane crash death could strain Poland-Russia ties

The commemoration of the Katyn massacre was meant to be a key 'forgive and forget' moment for Poland and Russia. It may now be overshadowed by the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, riding in a Russian-built aircraft.

People gather in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw to pay their respects to the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, both among the 97 people killed when the presidential plane crashed Saturday morning in Russia.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters

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The death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and many other Polish officials in a plane crash at Smolensk, in western Russia, on Saturday, is a human tragedy and an appalling historical accident that could derail a recent warming trend in Russian-Polish relations.

Mr. Kaczynski had been on his way to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which Soviet secret police slaughtered some 20,000 military officers that had been captured when the USSR invaded eastern Poland at the start of World War II. The Soviet Union denied and covered up the atrocity for half a century and, in a bitter irony, this ceremony had been intended as a moment of reconciliation, in which Russians and Poles could mourn the dead together.

"I, like all Russian citizens, have accepted with deep and sincere shock the news of the tragic death of the Republic of Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and the members of the large Polish delegation near the city of Smolensk, who were on their way for commemorations in Katyn," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a message to Poland's leaders.

Russian news agencies said President Kaczynski's plane made four attempts to land in thick fog at the Smolensk airbase, which is near the Katyn Forest mass grave site. To complicate matters, Smolensk, a Russian city, is covered by air traffic controllers in next door Belarus, whose officials said Saturday they had urged the pilot to divert to Minsk or Moscow due to the poor visibility.

Eyewitness reports said the plane clipped the top of trees while it was making its final approach, hit the edge of the airfield and burst into flames. Russian investigators said there were no survivors, though it remained unclear exactly how many people were aboard the aircraft. A passenger list provided by Polish authorities contains 89 names, but Russian sources said as many as 132 people may have been on board.

Russia's official RIA-Novosti news agency quoted an anonymous Smolensk security official as saying that "human error" was to blame for the crash.

"A mistake by the crew during landing maneuvers has supposedly caused the crash," the official said.

History of crashes

The plane was a Russian-built Tupolev Tu-154, an aging Soviet-era aircraft whose safety record has been tarnished by several high-profile crashes in recent years.

The memorial service at Katyn went ahead Saturday, adding a special mourning service for Kaczynski and his delegation. Russian TV showed hundreds of people gathered at the Katyn monument, many clutching Polish flags and weeping.

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Troubled Polish-Russian ties

Polish-Russian relations have been deeply vexed for the past 500 years, and Kaczynski had been viewed as unfriendly by the Kremlin due to his advocacy of several policies deemed to be anti-Moscow, including his support for US plans to deploy anti-missile interceptors in Poland, his promotion of NATO membership for ex-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia, and his outspoken backing for Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili during the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war.

But a warming trend had been underway, since Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to the Polish city of Gdansk last September, on the anniversary of World War Two's outbreak, in an attempt to ease some of the historical tensions between the two countries -- in a part of the world where people take history very seriously.

In Gdansk, Mr. Putin made at least partial amends for the Soviet Union's role in dividing up Poland with Germany under the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

But the commemoration of the Katyn massacre was meant to be a key "forgive and forget" moment that is likely to be forever overshadowed by the tragic death of President Kaczynski, riding in a Russian-built aircraft, to that appointment.


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