March 13, 2020 / 11:31 AM / 19 days ago

Poland's president calls off Russia trip due to coronavirus - official

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish President Andrzej Duda will not travel to Russia next month due to the coronavirus outbreak, a government official said, missing ceremonies marking the 10-year anniversary of a plane crash that killed Poland’s president, central bank chief and military commanders.

FILE PHOTO: Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks during a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron (not pictured), after their meeting, in Warsaw, Poland February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The crash in thick fog over a small airport near Smolensk in western Russia stunned Poland, exacerbating political divisions and reviving historic suspicions about Russia, Warsaw’s former Cold War master.

The death of Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s then-president and twin brother of the current head of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, generated various theories over what caused the crash.

An inquiry by Poland’s previous centrist government returned a verdict of pilot error, but the nationalist PiS has argued the crash could have been caused by an explosion on board. Some in Poland believe the plane’s passengers were murdered.

“The president will not fly to Smolensk...as he had hoped,” a government official with knowledge of the decision told Reuters. “All options are still on the table with regard to the prime minister,” he added, emphasising how important the anniversary was to the ruling party.

The Polish president’s spokesman later told the state news agency PAP that Duda’s office had not confirmed that he would not attend the anniversary ceremonies.

Poland has taken drastic measures to limit the spread of the virus, closing schools, museums, theatres and cinemas while also declaring a state of epidemic threat.

Poland has confirmed 58 cases of coronavirus and one death, while Russia has reported 34 infections.

Officials close to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said they hoped the spread of the coronavirus could be curbed over the next month ahead of the anniversary, allowing more senior Polish officials to travel, but this might not prove realistic.

“It’s up to them (the Polish authorities) to decide if they intend to organise memorial ceremonies in Smolensk and to inform the media about it,” the Russian Embassy in Warsaw told Reuters by email in response to a query.

Russian authorities said earlier this year they would help Polish counterparts organise the event in Smolensk.

Reporting by Joanna Plucinska with additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mark Heinrich

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