A year on, grieving Poles pray at Russia crash site

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Poland's first lady on Saturday led dozens of families in grieving at a snow-swept Russian airstrip where a crash killed the country's president and members of its elite one year ago.

But a diplomatic incident flared when it was discovered that a plaque at the scene had been replaced with one that removed mention of the wartime massacre of Polish officers. Commemoration of the Katyn massacre had prompted the trip that killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski.

Forty families of the 96 victims travelled by bus from Moscow to the ancient western city of Smolensk -- site of the disaster in which Kazcynski died with his wife, top ministers and military commanders.

They had flown to Smolensk to visit the nearby village of Katyn to mark the 70th anniversary of the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet secret police at the start of World War II.

Their plane crashed and burst into a fireball as it tried to land in fog in an accident that redoubled the pain of Katyn, long a source of friction between Warsaw and Moscow.

"We are in a place that will leave a permanent scar on our memory," Polish First Lady Anna Komorowska said under heavy snow-filled skies.

"But it will be easier for us to overcome this suffering together," she added before bowing to a grove of birch trees still embedded with small pieces of the Russian-made jet's fuselage.

Weeping families then laid small oil lamps in the memory of each of the fallen Poles before attending a second ceremony honouring the victims of Katyn.

But tempers flared when the relatives found that Russia had switched the plaque commemorating the air disaster.

The original sign written in Polish noted that Kazcynski was flying in to commemorate the mass executions. But the new bilingual plague removed the Katyn reference -- prompting a demand for explanations from the Polish foreign ministry.

"This was a very bad decision which has spoiled not only the current commemorations but also bilateral relations," ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said in Warsaw.

"We expect better cooperation from Moscow, and not only in this regard," Marcin told journalists.

The Russian ambassador had been summoned to discuss the matter, as well as the arrangements for Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski's own trip to Smolensk planned for Monday, he added.

Konorowski is scheduled to join his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Smolensk and Katyn. But Marcin said, "I can't imagine that in this situation the president can lay a wreath in front of this new plaque."

Moscow's explanation was that the original plaque was put up without consulting Russian authorities and was only in Polish, while it should have been in both languages.

Polish media also noted that a cross on the old plaque did not feature on the new one.

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

Those ties had begun to thaw with the Russian release of the first batch of Katyn documents and Moscow has since admitted that the deaths were ordered personally by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

But relations once again came under pressure as the two countries conducted rival inquiries into the Smolensk crash: each wound up squarely blaming the other side.

In Poland late Saturday, several hundred right-wing nationalists demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw, accusing Moscow of covering the truth about the Smolensk crash.

The Katyn event attended by the first lady included one ceremony at the Orthodox cross commemorating the Soviet victims of Stalin and a Catholic vigil for the more than 4,000 Polish officers who are buried in the small woods.

"We lost Poland's brightest on two occasions here," said Roman Skapski.

The elderly man said he had lost four relatives in Katyn and a brother on the ill-fated plane.

"But the similarities should end there. The plane crash is not a political event," Skapski noted.

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

© 2011 AFP

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