Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash near Smolensk this morning, along with his wife and many top government officials. From the Times Online:
President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were on board a flight which crashed at 10.56 Moscow time (0656GMT) near Smolensk airport.
Russian media is reporting that all 132 passengers were killed.
The Kaczynski’s were travelling with several senior government figures on a trip to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn forest massacre, in which thousands of Poles were executed by Soviet secret police.
Heavy fog and human error are being reported as likely causes of the crash. Updates below the jump.
The L.A. Times has a good article on the political and historical significance of the crash for Poland. The victims of the crash were not just politicians. Many of them were key figures and eyewitnesses in Poland’s Soviet-era history, and with them left some of the last living testimonies of that time:
With a single swipe, the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Saturday gutted a nation’s leadership and silenced some of the most potent human symbols of its tragic and tumultuous history.
It was, literally, a nation colliding with its past: They ran aground on a patch of earth that has symbolized the Soviet-era repressions that shaped much of the 20th century, near the remote Russian forest glade called Katyn where thousands of Polish prisoners of war were killed and dumped in unmarked graves by Soviet secret police in 1940.
The toll cut a swath through Poland’s elite. Along with the president, the 97 dead included the army chief of staff, the head of the National Security Office, the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the deputy parliament speaker, the civil rights commissioner and members of parliament.
But also aboard the plane were war veterans and surviving family members of Poles killed by the Soviets. There was 90-year-old Ryszard Kaczorowski, Poland’s last “president-in-exile” during the Soviet years. And Anna Walentynowicz, the shipyard worker whose dismissal sparked the Solidarity union protests that eventually led to the collapse of Polish communism.
And, of course, Kaczynski himself — a former Warsaw mayor imprisoned in the 1980s for his opposition to communism.
As Vincent noted below in the comments, some are beginning to formulate conspiracy theories about Russian involvement in the crash, but so far the Russian government has pledged to cooperate with Poland in the investigation. Putin is heading up the investigation, and last week he attended a memorial service for the Katyn massacre — a big step for the Russian government, which previously denied any involvement in the massacre. (They blamed it on the Nazis, natch.)
Over at the Wall Street Journal’s central and eastern European blog, Marcin Sobczyk notes that the Tupolev 154 aircraft that the Polish government used to ferry politicians were not-so-affectionately known as “flying coffins,” although the sobriquet is a bit unfair.
Sobczyk also relays this anecdote:
[L]et me share a story that shows President Kaczynski’s attitude toward his own personal safety.
During the Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia, Kaczynski flew to Georgia to show support for the Georgian leader. The president, as the supreme commander of the military, ordered the pilot to land near the breakaway republic and the military pilot respectfully refused, saying it was too dangerous and that Kaczynski may be his supreme commander on the ground, but not in the air.
Eventually, he landed at a safer airport and the president had to take a really long drive in a motorcade. Upon arrival, an angry Kaczynski told reporters that it was unacceptable for his orders to be ignored like that and decisions about his travel be made “on such a low level.”