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Polish President, 96 Others Killed in Plane Crash


Polish President Lech Kaczynski and many of the nation's other top officials died Saturday when the presidential plane crashed as it tried to land in Russia.

Russian officials say the jet broke up in flames after crashing into treetops as it approached the airport in the western city of Smolensk. It had been flying in thick fog. Officials say all 97 people on the plane were killed.

Eighty-eight of them were part of a Polish government delegation made up of top civilian and military leaders. Polish officials confirmed the president and his wife Maria were on board. Also killed were Poland's army chief (Franciszek Gagor), navy chief and the heads of the air and land forces. Other passengers included the country's central bank governor (Slawomir Skrzypek), deputy foreign minister (Andrzej Kremer), deputy parliament speaker and other Polish legislators.

The delegation was heading to Russia to attend a ceremony marking 70 years since Soviet forces killed 22,000 Polish officers in the town of Katyn, near Smolensk.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called the plane crash "tragic" and said it would be investigated.

The cause of the crash is not yet known, but Russian officials have suggested pilot error is to blame.

A Russian air force official said the plane's crew ignored Russian aircraft controllers' orders not to land because of the fog.

Lieutenant General Alexander Alyoshin said the crew continued the plane's descent despite being advised to go to another airport.

Russian officials say investigators have recovered the plane's flight recorders. The so-called "black boxes" can be used to reconstruct the chain of events that led to a crash.

Polish parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, now the acting president, has declared a week of national mourning in Poland.

The Polish flag was lowered to half-staff at the presidential palace in Warsaw, as several thousand people gathered to lay flowers and light candles in honor of their lost leaders.

Prime Minister Tusk said the country will observe two minutes of silence on Sunday.

Mr. Tusk was due to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Saturday at the site of the crash. An official for the opposition Law and Justice Party said the president's twin brother, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was also heading to Smolensk. The former prime minister is the chairman of the party.

Former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski described the crash as one of Poland's biggest tragedies since the massacre in Katyn.

Poland's first post-communist president, Lech Walesa, also mourned the deaths, despite his tensions with President Kaczynski. He described the crash as "a great loss for the nation" and said it will be difficult to overcome.

A government spokesman said Poland will now hold an early presidential election. The constitution mandates that the election date be announced within two weeks. The election must take place within two months of the announcement.

Video from the crash site showed the wreckage of the Russian-made Tupelov aircraft in a heavily wooded area, with part of the plane on fire.

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