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Fraught emotions as Russia, Poland mark crash date

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April 11, 2011, 8:39 p.m. |

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, left, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, attend a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the Polish presidential plane crash at the crash site near Smolensk, western Russia, Monday, April 11, 2011.
© AP

SMOLENSK, Russia (AP) — In a poignant ceremony, the presidents of Russia and Poland put aside their nations' simmering tensions to honor the 96 victims of the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Russian soil last year. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski in the western Russian city of Smolensk, near the area where Kaczynski's plane crashed in heavy fog on April 10, 2010.

The two presidents, dressed in thick black coats, laid wreaths at the site of the crash and touched a birch tree that still has part of the plane embedded in it.

As a solo bugle sounded, the two men bowed their heads.

A few yards away, two knee-high Polish flags fluttered in a frigid wind, marking the spots where the bodies of Kaczynski and his wife were discovered after the crash. Poppies lay scattered around in the melting slush.

Smolensk, near the border with Belarus, is a source of grief for Poles, who associate it not only with the 2010 crash that wiped out the country's political and military elite, but also with the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet secret police in the nearby forest.

The Soviet Union did not own up to the killings until 1990, under Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist leadership, after blaming Nazis for decades.

The delayed admission fed Poles' animosity toward Russia, and Moscow in recent years has made reconciliation gestures.

Kaczynski and his delegation were en route to a Katyn memorial ceremony at the time of the crash.

Some Poles accuse Russia outright of causing the crash, as illustrated by a 2,000-strong rally in Warsaw over the weekend.

Polish police on Monday charged a 31-year-old man with burning an effigy of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Many Poles, however, appreciated the Russian outpouring of grief over the Kaczynski crash, and initial cooperation on the investigation appeared to help heal old wounds.

But the squabbles that have broken out since then show the two countries are still far from friends.

A new dispute has erupted over the plaque at the crash site.

One plaque, inscribed in Polish, was put there in November by relatives of the victims and referred to the purpose of Kaczynski's trip, calling the 1940 massacre a "genocide."

But a Polish delegation that visited the site Saturday to pay tribute saw that it had been replaced with a dual-language plaque that omitted any reference to the massacre.

Russian officials said the original plaque had not been approved, and it was changed because the law forbids memorials written only in a foreign language.

Medvedev and Komorowski sought Monday to play down the simmering row, announcing that a joint panel would be set up to design a mutually acceptable plaque.

Komorowski also said Warsaw is waiting for Moscow to transfer the recording from the plane's flight recorders.

Medvedev indicated the key technical probe was closed but a separate criminal investigation is still ongoing.

"No one should doubt that Russia has given a thorough assessment of the reasons why that happened," he said.

Poland accepts that its pilot and crew bear the brunt of the blame for the disaster, as the Russian-led investigation found. But Warsaw also insists that Russia should concede that its air traffic controllers at the Smolensk airport may have been at fault for not advising the plane's crew strongly enough to land elsewhere due to the bad weather.

The crash investigation issue has deepened political divisions in Poland, where some including the late president's brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, accuse the current Polish government of having too much faith in Moscow's probe.

Speaking about the Katyn massacre, Medvedev admitted Monday that "leaders of the Soviet state of that period carry responsibility for what happened" in 1940.

"In the name of the future, we have to turn this page, but in a manner that leaves it in the memory of Russia and the Poles," he added.

Medvedev also promised to finish releasing documents on the probe into the Katyn massacre.

Moscow has turned over more than 137 volumes of documents to Warsaw but more than 40 others have yet to be sent.

Komorowski urged Russia to declassify all related documents.

"To close this chapter, it has to be read to the end," he said.
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