By Daily Mail Reporter
Crash: A plane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria (pictured here in 2007) has crashed on approach to Smolensk airport in western Russia
Pilot error blamed as witnesses report three or four attempts to land in thick fog
Poland in mourning as Prime Minister calls emergency meeting
Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria have been killed after their plane crashed on approach to Smolensk airport in western Russia.
There were conflicting reports today of the number of people on board the flight.
Russian news agencies reported at least 88 people died in the crash near Smolensk airport in western Russia, citing the Russian Emergencies Ministry. They reported 132 people were aboard the Tupolev Tu-154.
But Polish officials said 88 people were on board when the plane crashed. Sky News reported 96 dead.
Pilot error has been blamed for the tragedy after it emerged he turned down the opportunity to land at an alternative runway in thick fog. Witnesses said the pilot made three or four attempts to land before crashing into woodland nearby.
According to reports, the pilot accelerated as the plane came in to land and at that point lost contact with air traffic control.
As news of the tragedy spread, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called an extraordinary meeting of his Cabinet and the national flag was lowered to half-staff at the presidential palace, where people gathered to lay flowers and light candles.
Black ribbons appeared in some windows in the Polish capital.
Wreckage: The fuselage of the plane lies in woodland near Smolensk airport
'Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland': A video grab shows more of the wreckage of the president's plane
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been put in charge of a commission investigating the crash, the Kremlin said.
The governor of the Smolensk region, where the crash took place about 11am (0700 GMT), said no one survived.
"The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart," Sergei Anufriev said on state news channel Rossiya-24. "Nobody has survived the disaster."
A black day for Poland: National Bank President Slawomir Skrzypek, left, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Franciszek Gagor both died on board the plane
The crash occurred about 1.5 km from Smolensk airport in foggy conditions.
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 Polish red and white colours stuck up from the debris.
Poland's president is commander-in-chief of its armed forces but the position's domestic duties are chiefly symbolic.
Scene: A plane carrying the Polish president crashed on landing at Smolensk airport
Dark day for Poland: Mourners lay flowers in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw
The president and his wife were on their way to attend a World War Two memorial service. Kaczynski's wife, Maria, was an economist. They had a daughter, Marta, and two granddaughters.
A Polish government official said the head of the Polish army and the head of the presidential administration were also on board the plane, along with the president's wife and families of other senior officials.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, National Bank President Slawomir Skrzypek and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer were on the passenger list.
Grief: A woman weeps as she arrives at the presidential palace in Warsaw, left. A man draped in the Polish national flag bows his head in thought as he joins hundreds of mourners at the president's home
"The plane caught fire after the crash. Teams began attempting to pull out passengers from the badly damaged airplane," said a Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman in Warsaw.
Poland's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, said there were 89 people on the passenger list but one person had not shown up.
"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."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid tribute to Kaczynski while on the campaign trail in his home constituency of Kirkcaldy.
I think the whole world will be saddened and in sorrow as a result of the tragic death in a plane crash of President Kaczynski and his wife Maria and the party that were with them," he said.
"We know the difficulties that Poland has gone through, the sacrifices that he himself made as part of the Solidarity movement.
"We know the contribution he made to the independence and the freedom of Poland.
"I think at a time like this we also remember a family in mourning and large numbers of people who died and a whole country that will be shocked and saddened by what has happened.
"I have met President Kaczynski on a few occasions, I have talked with him recently.
"I think every leader around the world will be sending their sympathies to the people of Poland."
A nation in mourning: As news of the tragic plane crash spread, Poles gathered at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw to pay their respects
The president and his wife were on their way to a memorial service for the victims of the Katyn massacre which, in 1940, saw thousands of Polish prisoners of war murdered (primarily military officers), intellectuals, policemen, and other public servants by the Soviet NKVD.
Polish-Russian relations had been improving of late after being poisoned for decades over the Katyn massacre.
Russia never has formally apologized for the murders of some 22,000 Polish officers, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to attend a memorial ceremony earlier this week in the forest near Katyn was seen as a gesture of goodwill toward reconciliation.
The presidential Tu-154 was at least 20 years old. Polish officials have long discussed replacing the planes that carry the country's leaders but said they lacked the funds.
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.
Kaczynski, 60, became president in December 2005 after defeating Tusk in that year's presidential vote.
The nationalist conservative was the twin brother of Poland's opposition leader, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Kaczynski had said he would seek a second term in presidential elections this fall. He was expected to face an uphill struggle against Parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of Tusk's governing Civic Platform party.
According to the constitution, Komorowski would take over presidential duties.
Piotr Winczorek, law professor and constitutional expert, said: "The speaker of the parliament takes over presidential responsibilities. In fact, Bronislaw Komorowski should already take the office.
"The speaker has two weeks to announce new presidential election and they have to take place within two months from the announcement. There is no room for manoeuvre here.
"The constitution says the central bank governor is named by the president and approved by the parliament. The parliament is incomplete at the moment and should be filled before the central bank governor is named."
Jacek Wasilewski, professor at SWPS (Higher School of Social Psychology, added: "The political consequences will be long term and possibly will change the entire future landscape of Polish politics.
"Of course Law and Justice has taken the greatest blow from this event, but it does not make Civic Platform's life any easier. It is hard to be opposed to someone who suffered such a great loss.
"I don't think the political calendar will change much as it pretty much set by the Polish law. I cannot imagine postponement or cancellation of the Presidential and local elections."
Poland, a nation of 38 million people, is by far the largest of the 10 formerly communist countries that have joined the European Union in recent years.
Last year, Poland was the only EU nation to avoid recession and posted economic growth of 1.7 percent.
It has become a firm U.S. ally in the region since the fall of communism - a stance that crosses party lines.
The country sent troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and recently boosted its contingent in Afghanistan to some 2,600 soldiers.
U.S. Patriot missiles are expected to be deployed in Poland this year. That was a Polish condition for a 2008 deal - backed by both Kaczynski and Tusk - to host long-range missile defense interceptors.
The deal, which was struck by the Bush administration, angered Russia and was later reconfigured under President Barack Obama's administration.
Under the Obama plan, Poland would host a different type of missile defense interceptors as part of a more mobile system and at a later date, probably not until 2018.
Kaczynski is the first serving Polish leader to die since exiled World War II-era leader Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski in a plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Saturday, "This is a horrible tragedy for Poland and we extend to the people of Poland our deepest condolences."
Neighbouring Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said he was "shocked and full of sadness" at Kaczynski's death.
"All the German people are mourning with our Polish neighbours," Westerwelle said during a visit to South Africa.