Poland’s President, Bank Governor Die in Plane Crash (Update4)
April 10, 2010, 10:54 AM EDT
(Adds comment from IMF’s Strauss-Kahn in 16th paragraph.)
By David McQuaid and Piotr Skolimowski
April 10 (Bloomberg) -- Polish President Lech Kaczynski and central bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek were killed today along with several key members of the country’s political elite when their plane crashed in western Russia, where they were to mark the 70th anniversary of a massacre of Polish officers.
The 60 year-old president’s wife, Maria, and leaders of the country’s main opposition parties and military, including the Army Chief of Staff Franciszek Gagor, also died in the crash, which happened as the aircraft was on approach for landing in Smolensk, Foreign Ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski said in a phone interview. The crash killed all 96 on board, including 88 passengers and 8 crew, according to Russia’s Emergency Ministry.
Under Poland’s constitution the duties of the president, which are largely ceremonial, will be taken over by the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski. He has 14 days to announce a presidential election, which must be held within two months. Komorowski is the candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party and polls show he was poised to defeat Kaczynski in presidential elections, originally scheduled for the second half of the year.
“This is the most tragic event in the history of Poland outside wartime,” Tusk said in a televised speech. “Such a dramatic event is unprecedented in the modern world.”
Executive power under Poland’s constitution is concentrated in the hands of the prime minister as head of government. The president has the power to veto legislation and make some appointments, including generals, judges, ambassadors and the governor of the central bank.
Piotr Wiesiolek, a deputy governor of the central bank, will temporarily assume the governorship.
Hundreds of Poles gathered in front of the presidential palace, lighting candles, laying flowers and praying. The roads leading to the palace were crowded with onlookers as the police blocked off the surrounding area. Churches around the country announced services to commemorate the dead.
“I thought it’s some stupid April Fool’s kind of a joke when I heard the news and I am in such a state of shock that I can’t stop crying,” said Maria Przyborska, a 54-year old teacher from Warsaw who laid roses at the palace gates. “I didn’t vote for Kaczynski, but this was my president and I can’t understand how this could happen.”
The delegation was to attend an anniversary ceremony commemorating the murder of thousands of Poles killed in the spring of 1940 by Soviet forces under Josef Stalin at the Katyn forest, close to the city of Smolensk.
World Leaders Respond
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on April 7 hosted a meeting with Tusk in an effort to heal the two countries’ difference over the massacre, making him the first Russian leader to pay his respects to the more than 4,000 Polish officers killed in the Katyn forest, a crime denied by the Kremlin for half a century.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he called Tusk to express his “deepest condolences to the people of Poland on the tragic deaths,” according to a statement. “Today’s loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States, and to the world. President Kaczynski was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity.”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also conveyed his sympathy and ordered “a thorough investigation in full and closest cooperation with the Polish side,” a statement on the Kremlin’s Web Site said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the deaths a “political and human tragedy for Poland, for our neighbor country,” in comments broadcast by N24 television out of Berlin. “I gladly remember that Lech Kaczynski invited me to the Polish national holiday on the 11th of November 2008, that was a very special gesture also for a neighbor country like Germany; we spent many, many hours talking about Polish and European history.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres said his country is “shocked by the report of the terrible tragedy that has struck Poland,” in a statement distributed by e-mail today. Israel “shares in the mourning of the Polish people and the free world.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown said “the whole world will be saddened and shocked as a result of this tragic death,” according to a statement.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said he was “shocked” at the “terrible” news.
The government of the largest of the 10 former communist nations to join the European Union since 2004 is holding an emergency cabinet meeting. The country will hold a week of national mourning, Komorowski said in comments broadcast by TVP INFO.
“In the face of this tragedy we are all together; there are no divisions, no differences,” Komorowski said.
The plane clipped the tree line at about 10:50 a.m. Moscow time and broke in two as the pilot attempted a fourth landing amid heavy fog at a military airport near Smolensk, Russia, Rossiya-24 said, citing officials at the scene. Newswire RIA quoted an unnamed Russian security official as saying pilot error was a factor in the accident.
Rossiya-24 TV showed live footage of rescue workers attempting to extinguish pockets of fire among the wreckage almost two hours later at the airport, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Moscow.
“The plane was landing in bad visibility,” Andrei Yevseyenkov, press secretary of the Smolensk region governor told Rossiya-24. “Dispatchers at Severny military airport suggested that the plane land in Minsk (about 200 kilometers away) but the pilots took their own landing decision.”
Medvedev dispatched Emergency Ministry Sergei Shoigu to the site of the crash and formed a special commission headed by Putin to investigate the cause. Tusk said he will leave Warsaw “immediately” for the crash site, where he will talk with Russian officials conducting the investigation.
The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office is looking into whether bad weather, human error, a technical malfunction or other reasons caused the crash, according to a statement on the committee’s Web Site. A criminal case has been initiated, it said.
Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last Polish president in exile during World War II, Janusz Kurtyka, the head of the Institute of National Remembrance, which investigates Nazi and Soviet crimes against Poles, and the Army chief of staff Franciszek Gagor were to be on the plane, according to a list of passengers posted on the government’s website.
‘Twist of Fate’
The list also includes deputy parliamentary speaker Jerzy Smajdzinski, who was the presidential candidate of the opposition Left Democratic Alliance. That means the crash killed the presidential candidates of two of Poland’s three largest parties. Kaczynski had already won the endorsement of the opposition Law and Justice party. He was to officially declare his candidacy in May.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who led his country’s fight against Communism, called the crash a tragedy without comparison. “I would say that we weren’t that close politically but that is irrelevant,” Havel said today in an interview on Czech state-run television. “Even if it had been a different Polish president, to have all this occur together - Katyn and” the loss of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, “who died in a different plane crash, it’s an unbelievable twist of fate.”
The death of Polish Prime Minister Wladyslaw Sikorski at Gilbraltar in 1943 is the last time Poland lost a national leader in a plane crash.
--With assistance from Maciej Martewicz, Marta Waldoch, Monika Rozlal in Warsaw, Brad Cook, Anna Shiryaevskaya in Moscow, Douglas Lytle in Prague and Nicholas Comfort in Prague. Editors: Alan Crosby, Tasneem Brogger.
To contact the reporter on this story: David McQuaid in Warsaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
Piotr Skolimowski in Warsaw at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this Chris Kirkham at firstname.lastname@example.org