Polish defence minister quits over damning crash report

WARSAW Fri Jul 29, 2011 7:26pm BST

The wreckage of a Polish government TU-154 Tupolev aircraft carrying Poland's president that crashed in Russia in April 2010. REUTERS/ Sergei Karpukhin

The wreckage of a Polish government TU-154 Tupolev aircraft carrying Poland's president that crashed in Russia in April 2010.

Credit: Reuters/ Sergei Karpukhin

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WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich resigned on Friday after a government report chronicled a litany of errors and neglect by the crew of the military plane that crashed in Russia last year killing Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.

The long-awaited report said the crew of the TU-154 Tupolev plane were poorly trained and ignored safety regulations. It said mistakes by Russian ground staff and poor conditions at Smolensk airport also contributed to the crash.

"I accepted (Klich's) resignation because he felt his further presence in the Defence Ministry would hamper implementation of recommendations made in the report," Prime Minister Donald Tusk told a news conference.

The 328-page report provides ammunition to Tusk's rivals, including Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president's twin brother and leader of the right-wing opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, in campaigning for an October 9 parliamentary election.

But analysts say the report's findings and Klich's departure are unlikely to seriously erode the strong lead Tusk's centrist Civic Platform (PO) enjoys in opinion polls.

Klich had overseen negotiations with the United States on Polish participation in missile defence plans and on stationing U.S. air force personnel in Poland, a NATO ally, but he had not been expected to keep his job in the next government.

Tusk named Tomasz Siemoniak, a deputy interior minister, as the new head of the defence ministry.

Presenting the report earlier, Maciej Lasek, a member of the investigative commission, said: "There were serious shortcomings in the organisation of the unit (of the air force responsible for handling VIP flights)."

"In order for the unit to carry out its tasks, deliberate decisions were made to disregard or break procedures, to conduct training not in line with training regulations ... Pilots straight out of flying schools were accepted and no training flights were carried out."

More experienced pilots had left for more lucrative work in the civilian aviation sector, said Lasek, himself a pilot.

President Kaczynski, his wife Maria, the heads of the armed forces and many senior officials died in the crash as their plane was trying to land on April 10, 2010, in thick fog near the western Russian city of Smolensk, some 360 kilometres (224 miles) west of Moscow.

RUSSIANS ALSO TO BLAME

The Polish delegation had been heading to the nearby Katyn forest to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the murder of Polish officers by Soviet secret police during World War Two.

The crash report, drawn up by a panel of 34 experts over 15 months, said the crew had failed to properly prepare some key equipment on board the plane, which hampered their ability to grasp how dangerous their predicament was.

Faulty equipment at Smolensk airport and poor communication by Russian ground staff played a part in the disaster, it said.

"The commission has established that the lighting systems at the airport were faulty and inadequate," said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Benedict, a commission member.

The Russian side gave wrong orders to the plane's pilots, who he said were making only a trial descent rather than seriously attempting to land but they miscalculated their distance from the ground.

"One can even say that the soothing directions from the control tower were misleading. The crew thought it had not committed any errors and that it was on the right approach path," Polish Interior Minister Jerzy Miller said.

Miller said the adverse weather conditions proved a decisive factor, noting another Polish delegation led by Tusk had travelled safely to the same airport on the same plane just three days earlier without incident.

The report said there was no evidence Kaczynski or other passengers had put pressure on the pilots to land against their wishes. Some media and politicians have suggested the pilots had tried to land the plane under duress.

Tusk said the report, by seeking to establish the full truth, could help to improve bilateral relations with Moscow.

"I hope the fact that our report is detailed and reliable and does not evade the issue of Polish responsibility ... will be the basis for good relations (with Russia)," Tusk said.

In its own report into the disaster published in January, Russia put all the blame on the Polish crew, to the irritation of the Polish side.

On Friday, Alexei Morozov, an official from Russia's aviation authority MAK, told Russian state TV the new report "basically corresponds" to Moscow's own findings.

The shock of the crash initially helped to accelerate a cautious diplomatic rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw, long at loggerheads over various issues, but the Russian report complicated bilateral relations.

The PiS party published its own report last month saying Russia bore the main responsibility for the plane crash. Kaczynski has accused Tusk of conniving with Moscow to cover up the full truth behind the disaster. Tusk denies the claims.

Commenting on the government report on Friday, Kaczynski said: "He (Tusk) is responsible for not defending Poland's interest and Polish honour in the international arena... He didn't have the courage to react to the lies in the (Russian)report. I don't expect anything from Mr. Tusk anymore."

The government report is available in English and Russian as well as Polish on the website komisja.smolensk.gov.pl/.

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