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10 Apr, 2013 04:11

Poland mourns Smolensk presidential plane crash victims

Poland mourns Smolensk presidential plane crash victims

Warsaw is remembering the victims of the air tragedy that killed 96 passengers, including the president, first lady and most of the country's political elite. Memorial ceremonies marking the third anniversary of the crash are held in Poland.

Thousands of people gather near the Presidential Palace in central Warsaw to commemorate the victims of the plane crash, among which were President Lech Kaczynski and other members of a high-profile Polish delegation.

The late Polish president's twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski attends the memorial event at the military cemetery in Povonzkah, where a monument to the victims of the tragedy has been erected.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk lays flowers at the memorial in the military cemetery.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Law and Justice party (PiS) and twin brother of late Polish president Lech Kaczynski attends a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the presidential plane crash in Smolensk, in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw, April 10, 2013 (AFP Photo / Wojtek Radwanski)

“I believe the day when this sad, tragic anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash won’t separate Polish people will come and we’ll be able to pray and think without negative emotions,” Tusk says.  A daughter of former president Marta

Kaczynski prays near the grave of her father in the city of Krakov.

At 8:41am local time, the moment when the delegation’s plane crashed, the ceremony begins.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski also joined the ceremony to lay flowers on the memorial installed outside the Palace.

After prayers, a documentary film about the catastrophe is shown on a widescreen.

Last year a Polish delegation of the crash victims' relatives and officials took part in the commemoration service at the site of the tragedy, near Smolensk. A minute of silence was held at 8:41 am local time, marking the moment of the crash.

A sea of candles were laid out in front of the presidential palace in the early hours on April 11, 2010 in Warsaw following the Polish government Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft crash near Smolensk airport. (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)

On April 10, 2010, a high-profile Polish delegation was flying to western Russia to pay tribute to the victims of the 1940 Katyn forest massacre in which thousands of Polish officers were murdered and executed by Stalin's secret police around 14 kilometers west of the city of Smolensk.

The plane never reached its destination. The tragedy soured already strained relations between Russia and Poland.

Separate investigations were carried out by the two countries. Bad weather and dubious decisions by the crew were blamed by both expert commissions. It turned out that the personnel were warned of heavy fog and low visibility and asked to reroute to a different airport, but decided to land regardless of the poor weather conditions.

Warsaw’s official position has coincided with that of Moscow. Thorough investigation has confirmed that the crew committed a number of appreciable errors performing the landing in Smolensk.

On top of this, it’s believed psychological pressure was exerted on the pilots by some of the high-ranking officials on board also contributed to the crew's fatal decision to land.

People hold a Polish flag during a remembrance ceremony for the 2010 plane crash that killed former Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others outside of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw April 10, 2013 (Reuters / Peter Andrews)

Transcripts from the plane’s "black box" revealed that the pilots were in a hurry to land, on the insistence of an unknown person on-board who said he would “go crazy” if they chose not to.

The recording also showed that a certain influential official had entered the cockpit numerous times throughout the flight, while Poland’s Chief of the Air Force was present in the cockpit at the time of the crash.

The investigation was set back due to the suicide of a key witness just before testimony.

In October, flight engineer Remigiusz Muś, 42, set to deliver critical testimony in the Polish parliamentary investigation into the plane crash, as one of two key witnesses in the case, was found dead in his house in Warsaw after committing suicide.   

His testimony contradicted the official version, which said that the traffic controller only allowed the airplane to descend to 100 meters. The engineer claimed he overheard a Russian air traffic control officer allowing descent to a ‘landing decision’ height of 50 meters.

His suicide became the second incident connected to the investigation of the plane crash as earlier a Polish prosecutor involved in the investigation shot himself during a media briefing in January 2012.  

The debris of Polish President Lech Kaczynski's Tu-154 aircraft at Smolensk airfield's secured area. (RIA Novosti / Oleg Mineev)

Last year, in March, Poland’s Supreme Chamber of Control released its final report on the accident, according to which Kaczynski's plane was not even authorized to carry out the flight.

Smolensk airport was not listed as an active facility for the presidential flight. The head of the chamber Yatsek Yazersky pointed out that landing there should have been done only after a test flight, which never took place.

While hundreds of thousands of Poles were deeply shaken by the tragedy, some tried to use it to advance their political ambitions.

Despite the hard evidence and eyewitness accounts supporting the investigation, some political forces in Poland have pointed the finger at Russia.

Polish right-wing parties made an attempt to use the Smolensk crash to score points in their presidential and parliamentary campaigns. Their failure to win votes with anti-Russian rhetoric later proved their line had nonetheless failed to reflect the general mood of the Polish people.

Meanwhile, Nationalist Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has repeatedly claimed that the tragic death of his brother might not have been an accident, accusing Moscow of killing his brother.

“If there were explosions [on-board the plane], if this catastrophe looks increasingly like an assassination, then this means there is a new quality to international politics,” Kaczynski was quoted as saying.

A person holds a Polish flag and a photo of late Polish presidential couple during a public memorial service on Pilsudski square in Warsaw on April 17, 2010. (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)

On the eve of the second anniversary of the presidential plane crash, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s supporters rallied in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw and set fire to an effigy of Vladimir Putin, also claiming the tragedy was an assassination.

On Wednesday, in Smolensk memorial services are to start at 9:00am to commemorate the death of the Polish President and a swath of the Polish military and political elite.

Several Polish officials, including the head of the Prime Minister’s office, Interior Minister and Defense Minister, are expected to visit the memorial ceremony at the site of the crash in Smolensk.

The two countries have long been discussing the details of construction of the monument in Smolensk. Russia had provided Poland the topographic and geological information about the crash site and its surroundings needed for a monument to be designed.

This week Poland has announced that the Smolensk memorial area will occupy 1,219 square meters. According to the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage plan, the monument will be in a form of a 115-meter-long and 2.2-meter-high red granite wall with the names of the victims on it.

“We hope our cooperation will intensify, and allow us to do everything possible to build a memorial to mark the site of this terrible tragedy, that could become a symbol of solidarity between our two nations,” Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said last year. “This is our common goal.”

Relatives of the 96 victims of last April 10 air crash in Smolensk that killed Poland's president Lech Kaczynski attend a mass during a public memorial service on Pilsudski square in Warsaw on April 17, 2010. (AFP Photo / Jacek Turczyk)