Poland axes officers over crash, as electioneering kicks off

4th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Thirteen top Polish officers were fired Thursday in the fallout from last year's plane crash that killed president Lech Kaczynski, a disaster seen as a key issue in October's general election.

Centre-right Prime Minister Donald Tusk -- under fire for his handling of the crash from Kaczynski's identical twin, conservative opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- announced that three air force generals and 10 other top officers had been sacked.

They were axed by new Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak, whose predecessor Bogdan Klich quit last Friday after a government commission of inquiry found that the military crew of the presidential jet were ill-trained and ill-prepared.

Tusk said that Czeslaw Piatas, a deputy defence minister, was also leaving his job, and that the air force unit responsible for transporting top officials would be disbanded.

The news that heads had rolled came hours after President Bronislaw Komorowski, a key Tusk ally, announced that Poland's general election would take place on October 9.

Kaczynski, his wife and all 94 other Poles including most of the country's military top brass died on April 10, 2010 when Warsaw's presidential jet crashed in Smolensk, western Russia.

Last Friday's long-awaited report from a Polish government commission said the pilots of the Russian-made Tupolev-154 made a series of errors and blamed hasty, haphazard training that violated regulations.

The navigator's Russian was weak, and the meteorological information was incomplete, the inquiry commission said, while also pointing to shortcomings at Smolensk airport.

It ruled out sabotage and pressure from third parties on the crew to land for a high-profile World War II anniversary despite the weather.

On Tuesday, investigators in Russia insisted that Poland's air force chief, who perished in the crash, had pushed the pilots to land come what may.

Russian investigators have said the direct cause of the crash was the failure of the crew to divert to a substitute airport.

Adding an extra layer of sensitivity to the wrangling is the fact that the delegation had been bound for a memorial ceremony in nearby Katyn for thousands of Polish captives slain by the Soviet secret police in 1940, a massacre denied by the Kremlin until 1990.

More than a year on from the crash -- which also killed a handful of senior members of the Kaczynski twins' Law and Justice party -- it is certain to be a landmark issue in the election campaign, said political analyst Eryk Mistewicz.

"It will be the hub of Jaroslaw Kaczynski's campaign," Mistewicz told AFP.

"This is his tragedy, and his victims," he said, adding that the race would be "emotional".

Jaroslaw Kaczynski's bid to succeed his late identical twin as head of state was defeated by Komorowski in a July 2010 snap presidential election.

Law and Justice has upped the pressure since then, accusing Tusk's government of failing to take Russia to task.

Besides Smolensk, it is also focusing on bread and butter issues such as inflation.

Kaczynski was his brother's prime minister in 2006-2007, before his coalition government with ultra-Catholic and populist parties fell apart, sparking a snap general election won by Tusk two years after the previous polls.

The Kaczynski twins were known for their tough style at home and abroad, and fell out repeatedly with fellow European Union leaders and communist-era master Moscow.

When Tusk, head of the Civic Platform, won power in 2007 he swiftly mended fences.

Polls show his party could garner 39 percent of the vote, to Law and Justice's 29 percent.

Tusk's coalition ally, the centrist Polish People's Party, is seen as failing to get back into parliament, while 12 percent of voters are forecast to back the opposition Democratic Left Alliance.

© 2011 AFP

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