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Breaking News: Polish leader dies in jet crash

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By The Staff

MOSCOW (AP) – Polish President Lech Kaczynskiand some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died on Saturday when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia, killing 96, officials said.

 

Russian and Polish officials said there were no survivors on the 26-year-old Tupolev, which was taking the president, his wife and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.

 

The crash devastated the upper echelons of Poland's political and military establishments. On board were the army chief of staff, national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers, the Polish foreign ministry said.

 

It was not expected to directly affect the functioning of Polish government, however: Poland's president is commander in chief of its armed forces but the position's domestic duties are chiefly symbolic. The prime minister and other top government ministers were not aboard the plane.

 

Poland has long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but said they lacked the funds. The presidential Tu-154 had been overhauled in December in Russia, officials said.

 

Russia's Emergency Ministry said there were 96 dead, 88 part of a Polish state delegation. Poland's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, said there were 89 people on the passenger list but one person had not shown up for the roughly 1 1/2-hour flight from Warsaw's main airport.

 

Poland's parliament speaker, the acting president, declared a week of national mourning.

 

"We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland," Paszkowski said. "We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed."

 

The plane tilted to the left before crashing, eyewitness Slawomir Sliwinski told Rossiya-24. He said there were two loud explosions when the aircraft hit the ground.

 

State news channel Rossiya-24 showed footage from the crash site, with pieces of the plane scattered widely amid leafless trees and small fires burning in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the red and white national colors of Poland stuck up from the debris.

 

"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart," regional governor Sergei Anufriev said on Rossiya-24. "Nobody has survived the disaster."

 

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service.

 

The presidential plane was fully overhauled in December, the general director of the Aviakor aviation maintenance plant in Samara, Russia told Rossiya-24. The plant repaired the plane's three engines, retrofitted electronic and navigation equipment and updated the interior, Alexei Gusev said. He said there could be no doubts that the plane was flightworthy.

 

Kaczynski, 60, became president of Poland in December 2005.