Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polish President Lech Kacsynski And Senior Leaders Die In Suspicious Plane Crash In Smolensk, Russia On The Eve Of Missile Shield Deployment In Poland

On the eve of the deployment of defensive missiles in Poland, a move bitterly opposed by the Russian government, Polish President Lech Kacsynski and a number of senior leaders die from a plane crash at Russia. And now, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says he going to take personal charge of the "investigation". Primary media story from ABC News; other stories from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC, which contains a named list of the senior figures who perished.

The crash claimed a total of 97 lives. Besides President Kacsynski, aboard the aircraft were the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the army chaplain, the head of the National Security Office, the deputy parliament speaker, the army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, the heads of the air and land forces, the Olympic Committee head, the civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers. Also aboard was one American of Polish origin, Wojciech Seweryn, a 70-year-old Chicago sculptor. Seweryn had been chosen to accompany the group because of his love of history and a memorial sculpture he helped create. The group was intending to visit the site in the Katyn Forest where 10,000 Polish military officers were massacred by the Soviet NKVD in 1940.

The aircraft was a Tupolev Tu-154, and was considered flightworthy. It was fully overhauled in December, including the repair of the plane's three engines, retrofitting electronic and navigation equipment, and updating the interior. It should be noted that the overhaul was performed by Russia's Aviakor aviation maintenance company. But according to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s in the past four decades, including six in the past five years. The Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service, largely because the planes do not meet international noise restrictions and use too much fuel. Poland had considered replacing the aircraft, but lacked the funds.

Heavy fog and possible pilot error appear to be the contributing factors to the crash at first glance. Andrei Yevseyenkov, spokesman for the Smolensk regional government, said Russian dispatchers had asked the Polish crew to divert from the military airport in North Smolensk and land instead in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, or in Moscow to the east because of the fog. Air Force Gen. Alexander Alyoshin confirmed that the pilot disregarded instructions to fly to another airfield. The Smolensk airfield is not equipped with an instrument landing system to guide planes to the ground. Witnesses report hearing the aircraft making several attempts to land; preliminary indications are that it hit the trees on its final attempt.

The deaths are not expected to significantly affect the functioning of Polish government. Although Poland's president is commander in chief of its armed forces, the position's domestic duties are chiefly symbolic. No top government ministers were aboard the plane. Polish Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, who became acting president, addressed his country on television, saying "Poland is in mourning, we have suffered a dramatically painful loss." He also said he would announce early elections within 14 days of the president's death, in line with the constitution. The vote must be held within another 60 days.

This could indeed be a genuine, unfortunate accident. But there are two other factors raising suspicions. Poland was scheduled to begin deploying Patriot missiles on its soil this month, a move bitterly opposed by Russia. The first deployment was to be a battery of U.S. Patriot missiles to the town of Morag, just 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Russia had threatened to deploy missiles of its own in Kaliningrad in response, but later backed off. It would not be unheard of for the Russian special services to have arranged the crash to send a "message" to Poland, using a Russian company's recent "overhaul" as a cover; in 1999, apartment house bombings in Russia blamed on "Chechen terrorists" are still believed by many to have been provocations done by the Russian special services. And Putin was President of Russia back then; who better than him to take charge of this "investigation" and make sure it goes "right".

A lesser cause of suspicion is the fact that President Kacsynski appeared to be resisting pressure for full integration into the European Union. In May 2009, Kacsynski warned against adoption of the euro, saying it would be risky to switch to the euro currency during a financial crisis.

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