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Body of exiled Polish leader returns to Warsaw

Hundreds gather at Warsaw's airport for ceremonies honoring 35 more victims of the plane crash in Russia, among them the last man who led Poland's government in exile when the country was ruled by communists.
Image: Ryszard Kaczorowski
Undertakers on Thursday close the hearse with the coffin of Ryszard Kaczorowski, 90. The former president of the Polish government-in-exile was among 96 people who died on April 10 in the plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk that also killed the current president.Janek Skarzynski / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hundreds of Poles gathered in grief at Warsaw's airport Thursday for two state ceremonies honoring 35 more victims of the plane crash in Russia, among them the last man who led Poland's government in exile when the country was ruled by communists.

A military plane traveled from Russia with the body of Ryszard Kaczorowski, whose casket was draped in the white-and-red Polish flag, and laid out on the tarmac flanked by a saber-bearing honor guard. His widow and daughters, dressed in black, wept at his coffin and kissed it.

Kaczorowski, who headed the exile government from London shortly before communism's demise in Poland, was among the 96 people killed in a plane crash last Saturday in western Russia en route to ceremonies to honor Polish victims of the World War II Katyn massacres of Polish officers by the forerunner of the Soviet secret police. He was 90.

His body was driven in a black hearse to lie in state in Warsaw's Belvedere palace until a funeral is held for him on Monday. The exiled leadership was established during the Nazi occupation of Poland and continued to declare itself the rightful government during the decades of communism, until Lech Walesa became Poland's first popularly elected president in 1990.

Later in the day, the remains of 34 more bodies returned home in flag-draped coffins for a separate ceremony defined by funeral marches, honor guards and grieving kin. There have been several such ceremonies now, and each time Prime Minister Donald Tusk and other top officials were there to receive the bodies.

Among those returning Thursday were Anna Walentynowicz, a leader of the Solidarity freedom movement; Gen. Tadeusz Buk, the commander of Poland's land forces and a former commander of Polish troops in Iraq; Janusz Kurtyka, the head of the state-run historical institute which investigates communist-era crimes; and Janusz Kochanowski, the civil rights commissioner.

Country in mourning
Poles continued to form a long line at the presidential palace, some waiting 13 hours to view the body of President Lech Kaczynski and the much-loved first lady Maria Kaczynska.

As the country continued to mourn, authorities tackled the massive security challenge of Sunday's state funeral in Krakow, an event that will be attended by many world leaders.

President Barack Obama was forced to cancel his trip to Poland Saturday because of hazardous conditions created by volcanic ash over Europe, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

A huge volcanic ash cloud drifting across Europe from Iceland has closed Polish airports and it was unclear how many world leaders would manage to attend the funeral.

The investigation into the crash is moving fairly quickly, aviation experts said, but some Poles have complained about a lack of public information, including the transcript of conversation in the cockpit before the accident.

Jerzy Artymiak, spokesman for Polish military prosecutors, said one of three black boxes found was brought to Poland for analysis, while the other two continue to be examined in Russia.

Investigators had hoped to disclose contents of the flight recordings on Thursday, but Artymiak said they now plan to wait until after the weekend memorial ceremonies. There will be a state funeral for all the victims Saturday in Warsaw, and a separate funeral and burial of the presidential couple on Sunday in Krakow.

Last weekend, the pilot of the Tupolev 154 carrying Kaczynski and the others had been warned of bad weather in Smolensk, Russia, and advised by air traffic controllers to land elsewhere — which would have delayed the Katyn observances. Some in Poland have speculated that the pilots ignored the risks in order to keep President Kaczynski on schedule for a memorial for Polish officers executed by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest in 1940.

However, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying that Polish officials aboard the plane did not force the pilots to land in the western Russian city.

"So far, we found no confirmation that any of the VIPs aboard demanded that pilots landed near Smolensk," a source in the panel of experts that investigate the crash told Interfax. "The panel's analysis, namely data from the black boxes, shows that it was the pilot's mistake that caused the crash."

Human error?
The anonymous official repeated what officials have said so far — that the evidence points to human error.

Poland's chief military prosecutor Krzysztof Parulski, however, called the Russian reports unacceptable "speculation" and warned that it was too early to draw any conclusions since the investigation is still ongoing, the news agency PAP reported from Russia.

Poland Prosecutor General Andrzej Seremet said on Radio TOK FM that the investigation so far indicates that the pilots "were indeed aware of the inevitable crash (because) there was the jolt of the plane when the wings hit the trees."

Sunday's state funeral in mostly Roman Catholic Poland will begin at begin at 2 p.m. with a Mass at St. Mary's Basilica. The bodies of the first couple will then be carried in a funeral procession across the Old Town and to the historic Wawel Cathedral, where they will be buried.

Some Poles criticized the decision to bury Kaczynski, whose combative style earned him many opponents, in a place reserved for the most esteemed of national figures. There have been protests across several cities in the past three days, leading Poland's top Catholic authorities to appeal Thursday for unity.

"The decision has been made. Now is no time for disputes," said Stanislaw Budzik, secretary general of the Polish Bishops' Conference. "One has to respect the decision because the idea is to ... honor the victims of the crash, which is unprecedented in Polish history."