Year on, grieving Poles pray at Russia crash site

9th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

Polish First Lady Anna Komorowska Saturday led dozens of families in grieving at a snow-swept Russian airstrip where a plane crash killed the country's president and members of its elite one year ago.

Some 125 relatives of the 96 victims travelled by bus from Moscow to the ancient western city of Smolensk -- site of the disaster in which president Lech Kazcynski died together with his wife.

The late Polish president and his top ministers and military commanders had been flying to Smolensk to visit the nearby village of Katyn where more than 20,000 Polish officers were summarily executed at the start of World War II.

For incredulous Poles, the plane crash seemed to redouble the pain of the 1940 massacre by the Soviet NKVD.

The Katyn massacre was covered up by Moscow until the dying days of the Soviet Union and became a symbol of the uneasy relations the two nations experienced in more recent years.

On April 10, 2010, a Russian-made Tu-154 jet crashed in heavy fog in an accident for which neither side is willing to accept blame.

The relatives of the victims said prayers at a newly erected cross at the site of the airport wreckage before reading names of the victims in a solemn candlelight ceremony that began under heavy snow-filled skies.

They were then expected to travel on to the forests of Katyn before returning to Warsaw and observing the actual day of the anniversary at home.

"I join with the American people, including many Polish Americans, in honouring the memory of these 96 Polish patriots," US President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"The images of the wreckage in Smolensk, and the loss of so many extraordinary civilian and military leaders who guided Poland to democracy and prosperity, broke our hearts."

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski was planning to join his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev on Monday for ceremonies at both the airport and Katyn.

The liberal Polish leader has sought to improve ties with Moscow since winning the presidency in a vote in which he edged out the late president's twin brother Jaroslaw.

And Komorowski lavished warm praise on Medvedev in an interview that appeared on the eve of the crash anniversary.

Medvedev "understands that the Katyn problem lies at the root of Polish fears and pain -- and also that it is the key to Polish-Russian relations," Komorowski said in an interview published in the Russian government's Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily.

"We will be seeking to reveal as much of the truth about Katyn as possible and also to rehabilitate its victims," the Polish president said.

Yet he also noted that Poland was still waiting to receive "the remaining parts" of the crash investigation.

Russia has issued an initial report that placed the entire blame for the tragedy on the Polish crew and senior officials present on board.

Poland has dismissed the politically explosive charges and accused local air traffic controllers of failing to inform the craft of the exact weather conditions.

© 2011 AFP

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