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Thousands of Poles mourn president's death

Thousands of Poles prayed, sang or wept in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw on Saturday to grieve for President Lech Kaczynski following his death in a plane crash in western Russia. See map | President Kaczynski: A profile | Timeline: Recent major plane crashes | List of some of those who died

world Updated: Apr 10, 2010 21:48 IST

Thousands of Poles prayed, sang or wept in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw on Saturday to grieve for President Lech Kaczynski following his death in a plane crash in western Russia.

Russia's Emergencies Ministry said 97 people were aboard the Polish government Tupolev TU-154M jetliner, when it crashed in heavy fog, carrying a delegation en route to commemorate Poles killed in mass murders in the town of Katyn under orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1940.

In Warsaw, families with candles and flowers stood weeping in front of the palace, some kneeling on the ground and praying aloud, wrapped in Polish flags.

Young children brought hand-drawn pictures and their toys, while football fans left club insignia, as gifts of remembrance.

Many were not the president's supporters, but wanted to pay their respects anyway.

"This is like a dream, I am shattered by this tragedy," high school student Tomasz Kleszcz said.

"I have never agreed with the president ... I don't think he was doing a great job, but above all he was a man."

Bronislaw Komorowski, speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament and acting president, said the nation stood as one in honouring Kaczynski, who was 60.

"In the face of this tragedy we stand all united," he said.

"There is no left or right, there are no differences, no divisions. We are all together with our message of compassion to the families of those who died nearby the Smolensk airport."

Priests organised group prayers for devastated Poles, while boy scouts and girl scouts helped with thousands of candles, flowers and wreaths, all before a motionless honour guard set up in front of the palace.

Six books of remembrance set up above photos of the presidential pair quickly filled with mementos, obituaries, prayers, and poems, many of which were in foreign languages.

"I was never a fan of your politics, but I am devastated by the loss. I feel emptiness inside," one of the messages read.

Many of those who came grieved for a double loss, the one from only hours before and the one from 70 years before, when 22,000 Polish officers were murdered by Stalin's NKVD secret police in the forest of Katyn, southern Russia.

"I am all broken up. Two great tragedies (the Katyn massacre and plane crash) have come together. That cannot be expressed in words," fashion designer Ewa Robaczewski said.

The mass murder of Polish prisoners of war and intellectuals just months after Nazi Germany and Stalin carved up Poland is an enduring symbol for Poles of their suffering under totalitarian Soviet rule.

Kaczynski was on his way to Katyn to commemorate the 1940 Soviet Russia victims when his plane crashed.

"The best president we have ever had has perished. His mission to tell the world about Katyn has been fulfilled in this tragic manner," Bartosz Morawski, an actor, said.