Poles mark anniversary of plane crash tragedy

AP News
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Posted: Apr 10, 2011 4:12 PM
Poles mark anniversary of plane crash tragedy

Poland on Sunday relived the deep pain that engulfed the nation a year ago with a day of prayers and other ceremonies marking the anniversary of the plane crash in Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski and many other prominent civilian and military leaders.

But deep political and social divisions that have simmered since the crash were also on display, with protesters voicing anger at the Polish government and at Russia for an investigation they believe is marred, as well as other grievances.

Church bells rang out across Poland to mark the exact time a year ago that the plane crashed, killing all 96 people aboard. People filled churches and cemeteries, and a large crowd waving Polish flags gathered in front of the presidential palace, where Kaczynski and his wife Maria lived before their deaths in the crash near Smolensk, Russia.

The crowd fell still at 8:41 a.m. and sirens wailed in central Warsaw while church bells pealed in many places. The names of the 96 victims were read out in ceremonies and on television, with the anniversary dominating news coverage from the early hours onward.

"A year ago, on April 10, 2010, our world collapsed. In that one moment, time froze. The shock that we survived has changed the lives of our families," Jolanta Przewoznik, the widow of one of those killed, said in a ceremony at the Powazki cemetery in Warsaw. "It's sometimes difficult to break through the layers of pain."

Earlier, the loved ones of many victims gathered for a private Mass at Warsaw's airport, the site of some of last year's most painful scenes, where 96 flag-draped coffins returned over several days last year to funeral marches.

At the time, the country experienced a short period of national unity amid the shock of losing the president, first lady and dignitaries that included the president of the central bank and the head of the air force.

The disaster, however, quickly deepened political and social divisions in the country, and in a sign of that, separate commemorative events were held Sunday.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk, President Bronislaw Komorowski and other politicians honored victims in a military church and at Powazki cemetery. But Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw, boycotted the official events and marked the anniversary in his own separate ceremonies.

Lech Kaczynski and many of the others killed belonged to the nationalist conservative party Law and Justice, which Jaroslaw Kaczynski heads. That camp now blames Tusk's government for selling out Poland's interests by allowing Russia to lead the main investigation into the crash. Earlier this year the Russian investigators concluded that Poland bore full responsibility for the crash, sparking outrage in Poland.

The plane crashed while trying to land in heavy fog, and Tusk's government and many other Poles acknowledge that most mistakes were made by the pilots and other Poles. But they also want Russia to address what role Russian air traffic controllers and the rudimentary state of the Russian airport might have played _ issues avoided in the Russian report.

The sense of Russia avoiding responsibility has fueled rage and conspiracy theories among Kaczynski's supporters, and some protesters in Warsaw said they believe Kaczynski was assassinated by Russia. That theory has been ruled out by a separate Polish investigation.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski has also said that Tusk's government bears some responsibility for the disaster _ an accusation he repeated in a speech in Warsaw.

"Our state was not able to even protect its own president because it is weak," he told a crowd of cheering supporters. Thousands of them then marched across the city to the presidential palace.

He also quoted the words of poet Zbigniew Herbert, saying those who died last year "were betrayed at dawn" _ words that appeared likely to support those who believe in the conspiracy theories.

Over the past two days thousands have rallied in front of the presidential palace in central Warsaw carrying flags and chanting Kaczynski's name. A large banner accused Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of being a murderer and Tusk of being a traitor, while several placards said simply "Assassination."

Protesters also demand that Russia hand over wreckage of the plane.

"This nightmarish catastrophe, which could have united the nation, has instead divided the nation in a decisive fashion," Tomasz Lis, one of Poland's leading journalists, wrote in the latest edition of the weekly magazine Wprost.