Monday, April 12, 2010

Mystery still surrounds cause of Polish air tragedy

POLISH INVESTIGATORS say they have uncovered no evidence that Polish president Lech Kaczynski demanded that his pilot make a fatal crash landing in fog last Saturday.

Russian authorities confirmed yesterday that they had identified the body of Polish first lady Maria Kaczynska, who died along with her husband and 94 others in the air crash near the western Russian town of Smolensk.

Her remains will be flown home today, a day after those of Mr Kaczynski. The deceased president will lie in state from today at the presidential palace in Warsaw ahead of a state funeral on Saturday.

Mystery persists about why the aircraft clipped trees and crashed in flames after Russian tests yesterday revealed no mechanical defects.

Polish authorities say the aircraft had been fitted recently with new electronic equipment and the engine had been overhauled. But diplomats familiar with the aircraft have questioned why Warsaw still used a Soviet-built Tupolev 154 “badly in need of replacement”.

“It’s hard to understand how we are involved in costly missions in Afghanistan and Iraq but are unable for years to equip our [leaders] with proper planes,” said Prof Roman Kuzniar, an international affairs analyst at Warsaw University.

That has all turned the spotlight back on Mr Kaczynski. Asked whether the pilot was pressurised to land by the president, Poland’s chief prosecutor, Andrzej Seremet, said yesterday: “At the current level of the investigation we have no such information.”

After flight recorders revealed nothing unusual, Russian investigators said yesterday they had moved on to the voice recorders.

Mindful of the continuing week of mourning, Polish media have not dared even raise the possibility that Mr Kaczynski had a role in the crash. But the Russian media have recalled how, in 2008, Mr Kaczynski demanded that a pilot land his aircraft in Tblisi in the middle of the Georgian war; the pilot refused and diverted.

A Russian flight expert suggested in the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily that the crash was caused by “VIP passenger syndrome”. But this was dismissed by a colleague of Arkadiusz Protasiuk, the crash pilot.

“He was a tough man who wouldn’t let emotions prevail over common sense,” said Tomasz Pietrzak, another government pilot, on Polish radio. “He would certainly not risk passengers’ lives.”

The crash has also prompted reflection in political circles about whether the incident might have been the indirect consequence of years of competition between the president and Polish prime minister Donal Tusk.

Last Wednesday, Mr Tusk flew to Katyn for a memorial service with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Feeling snubbed at not being invited, Mr Kaczynski, from a competing party, organised a competing event on Saturday to remember the 22,000 Polish soldiers massacred at Katyn in 1940.

“As a consequence of the crash, this unfortunate situation may finally be at an end,” said Andrzej Maciejewski, political analyst of the Sobieski Institute think tank.

Mr Kaczynski’s office published his final, undelivered speech yesterday, in which he paid tribute to the Katyn soldiers and the families who kept their memory alive, and condemned the Soviet cover-up as “the founding lie of the [communist] People’s Republic of Poland”. But the president, known for his anti-Russian tirades, saved his final words to thank Moscow for its assistance ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

The undelivered words carry additional poignancy now: “Let’s allow the Katyn wound to finally heal,” he planned to say. “We are already on the path; we should follow it to bring our nations closer and not stop or retreat.”

Mr Maciejewski of the Sobieski Institute said: “In future we will be able to distinguish between pre-April 10th Polish-Russian relations and post-April 10th.”

Source:Poland Twitter

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