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Plane crash kills Polish president, dozens more

In this image taken from Russian television, pieces of the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski lie scattered after crashing near Smolensk Keystone

Polish President Lech Kaczynski is dead after a plane he and other senior officials were travelling in crashed on approach to a Russian airport.

This content was published on April 10, 2010 - 17:38

Kaczynski's wife Maria was among 96 people on the plane, which came down in foggy weather while on approach to Smolensk airport in western Russia on Saturday. There were no survivors.

On board were the army chief of staff, national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the national security office, deputy parliament speaker, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers, the Polish foreign ministry said.

President Doris Leuthard and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who met Kaczynski in 2007 while she held the rotating presidency, both offered their condolences.

The Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-154 Kaczynski was in had been travelling from Warsaw, went down at around 11:00am local time (9:00am Swiss time, 3:00am ET). The flight normally takes around 90 minutes.

"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart," Sergei Anufriev, governor of the Smolensk region, said on state news channel Rossiya-24. "Nobody has survived the disaster."

Television pictures showed the burning fuselage and fragments of the plane scattered in a forest. with pieces of the plane scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires burning in woods.

A tail fin with the Polish red and white colors stuck up from the debris. The crash occurred about two kilometres from Smolensk airport.

"We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland," said Polish foreign ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski.

Succession

In the case of a president's death, the speaker of the lower chamber of parliament. Officials have said there will be an election to choose a new president.

In Warsaw, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called an extraordinary meeting of his cabinet and the national flag was lowered to half-staff at the presidential palace, where people gathered to lay flowers and light candles. Black ribbons appeared in some windows in the Polish capital.

Kaczynski had been flying to Katyn, near Smolensk, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.

Thousands of Polish prisoners of war and intellectuals were murdered at Katyn by Soviet forces in spring 1940 in an enduring symbol for Poles of their suffering under Soviet rule.

Families of those killed at Katyn were also on board the plane, the Polish government official at the airport said.

The plane’s pilot reportedly ignored instructions to land elsewhere. "The pilot was advised to fly to Moscow or Minsk because of heavy fog, but he still decided to land. No one should have been landing in that fog," a Russian air traffic control official said on condition his name was not published.

The presidential Tu-154 was 21 years old. Polish officials have long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but said they lacked the funds.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service.

Powerful twins

Kaczynski, age 60, became a power broker with his identical twin brother Jaroslaw in Poland’s fragmented political scene following the fall of communism.

He had been interned under martial law from December 1981 to October 1982 for his involvement in the Solidarity movement.

In the country’s first free presidential elections in 1990 the twins were the driving force behind hero Lech Walesa's victory. Kaczynski became the head of the national security office under Walesa. The two fell out after Kaczynski resisted plans for "shock therapy" economic reforms.

Kaczynski’s 2005 presidential win followed a general election victory by the Law and Justice party led by Jaroslaw, and made the Kaczynski duo the undisputed first family in the new European Union member state.

Poland's president is commander-in-chief of its armed forces but the position's domestic duties are chiefly symbolic.

In office, the twins campaigned to expose those who had collaborated with the communists and promised a "moral revolution" against corruption.

Kaczynski was a critic of the economically liberal government and often vetoed its bills, including 2008 plans to encourage hospitals to operate on a commercial basis – a plan the president said amounted to privatisation. He vetoed a 2009 bill that aimed to shake up public media.

Kaczynski's appeal was based on his image as an incorruptible politician who, unlike some post-communist leaders, never personally benefited from politics.

Poland, a nation of 38 million people, is by far the largest of the ten formerly communist countries that have joined the European Union in recent years.

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Bilateral relations

Political and economic links between Bern and Warsaw have grown significantly since the end of communist rule in Poland 20 years ago.

Swiss exports – notably pharmaceuticals, chemicals and machinery – to the country rose from SFr334 million in 1989 to SFr2.5 billion in 2009.

Imports of goods and services from Poland – machinery, vehicles and furniture – rose from SFr119 million ($311 million) in 1989 to some SFr1.2 billion last year.

Switzerland has more than SFr5 billion invested in Poland, making it the country’s 13th-largest foreign investor.

The federal government has actively supported the democratic transition in Poland, allocating more than SFr260 million between 1989 and 2001 for technical assistance programmes.

Poland is also the largest recipient country of money allocated by Switzerland to new EU countries. Bern has pledged SFr489 between 2007 and 2012 to Poland for programmes like infrastructure development.

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Tu-154 crashes

April 10, 2010: Crash kills Polish president and all aboard

July 15, 2009: 168 dead, en route from Iran to Armenia

September 1, 2006: 80 (of 147), Iran

August 22, 2006: Approx. 170, Ukraine

August 24, 2004: 46, Russia (suicide bomber)

July 1, 2002: 71, Germany (mid-air collision)

February 12, 2002: 119, Iran

October 4, 2001: 78, Russia

July 3, 2001: 145, Russia

February 24, 1999: 61, China

August 29, 1998: 79 (including 10 on the ground), Cuba

December 15, 1997: 85, United Arab Emirates

August 29, 1996: 141, Russia

December 7, 1995: 97, Russia

June 6, 1994: 160, China

January 3, 1994: 125, Russia

(Source: The Associated Press)

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