Poles were left in shock and grief Saturday after President Lech Kaczynski's death in a plane crash that killed at least 95 people, including dozens of high-ranking Polish politicians and officials.
Most Poles listened with disbelief to the news of President Lech Kaczynski’s death in a plane crash near the western Russian city of Smolensk. A week of national mourning was declared by the Speaker of the Polish Parliament and now caretaker President Bronislaw Komorowski.
“We are united in the face of this great national tragedy” he said.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk conveyed condolences to the family of President Kaczynski, including his twin brother Jaroslaw, the former prime minister, and to the families of the other crash victims.
He is scheduled to fly to the site of the disaster.
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Large numbers of Warsaw residents gathered in front of the Presidential Palace to lay flowers and to express their grief.
"He was a true patriot and a true fighter for Poland’s right place in Europe and the world. He died on a mission to remember the suffering of the Polish nation during World War Two," one elderly woman said, her voice heavy with emotion. She was referring to the ceremony Kaczynski was en route to commemorating the 1940 massacre of Polish soldiers by the Soviets.
“I was not among his supporters and I often disagreed with his nationalist and ultraconservative views, but this is a huge loss” was the reaction of a young Warsaw university student.
Poles appear sharply divided in their assessment of Kaczynski’s legacy. Elderly voters with links to the country’s powerful Roman Catholic church supported his conservative policies.
But critics accused him of antagonizing Europe and living in the past. Among Kaczynski’s controversial moves was the banning of a gay pride parade in Warsaw at a time when he served as the city's mayor.
Among the victims of the plane crash were many high-profile members of the Polish political establishment: a deputy foreign minister, several key national security advisors, the chief of staff, the President of the National Bank of Poland and the Ombudsman.
“It is an irreparable blow to the national elite” former President Aleksander Kwasniewski said.
Poland is scheduled to hold early presidential elections before the end of June.
Lech Kaczynski was running for re-election, with his main rival being Parliamentary Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, the man who has now become acting president.
Observers say it is hard to predict how quickly the main opposition conservative Law and Justice party, led by Kaczynski’s twin brother, can gather its forces considering that many of its leaders were among the crash victims.
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