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Polish leader killed in crash

Photo by Czarek Sokolowski

Photo by Czarek Sokolowski

SMOLENSK, Russia -- An aging Russian airliner carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 96 others, mostly members of his country's military, political and church elites, crashed in thick fog Saturday as it took them to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the slaughter of thousands of Polish military officers by Soviet secret police.

Poles wept before their televisions, lowered flags to half-staff and taped black ribbons in their windows after hearing that the upper echelons of the establishment lay dead in woods a short drive from the site of the Katyn forest massacre, one of Poland's greatest national traumas.

Thousands of people, many in tears, placed candles and flowers at the presidential palace in central Warsaw. Many called the crash Poland's worst disaster since World War II.

Twenty monks rang the Zygmunt bell at Krakow's Wawel Cathedral -- the burial spot of Polish kings -- a tolling reserved for times of profound importance or grief.

The crash also shocked Russia. Sensing the depth of the tragedy for Poland, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally took charge of the investigation and very quickly and publicly offered condolences, along with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

''On this difficult day the people of Russia stand with the Polish people,'' Medvedev said, according to the Kremlin press service.

Chunks of the plane were scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the red and white national colors of Poland stuck up from the smoking debris. Early indications pointed to pilot error in heavy fog as a factor in the crash, officials said.

On board were the national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, Olympic Committee head, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers, the Polish foreign ministry said. Kaczynski's wife, Maria, also died.

''This is unbelievable -- this tragic, cursed Katyn,'' Kaczynski's predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said on TVN24 television.

It is ''a cursed place, horrible symbolism,'' he said. ''It's hard to believe. You get chills down your spine.''

The Polish military suffered the deepest losses. Among the dead were the army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, and heads of the air and land forces, who were all making the emotional trip to honor the Polish officers slain by the NKVD, the acronym for the Soviet secret police at the time of the murders in 1940.

Some on board were relatives of the officers slain in the Katyn massacre. Also among the victims was Anna Walentynowicz, whose firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workers' strike that spurred the eventual creation of the Solidarity freedom movement.

''This is a great tragedy, a great shock to us all,'' former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said.

Polish Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, who became acting president, addressed his country on television: ''Poland is in mourning, we have suffered a dramatically painful loss.''