August 29, 2011 / 12:51 PM / 8 years ago

Poland exhumes first Smolensk crash victim

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland exhumed Monday the first victim of last year’s plane crash in western Russia, which killed the country’s president and 95 others, because of concerns that the Russian autopsy may be faulty.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of Poland's former President Lech Kaczynski, lays a candle as he takes part in a event outside the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, April 10, 2011, held to commemorate the first anniversary of the crash of the presidential plane at Smolensk airport, during which everyone on board was killed, including the President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The Polish state plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski crashed while trying to land in thick fog in the city of Smolensk. Disputes between Warsaw and Moscow over responsibility for the disaster has badly damaged ties between the two.

“Today in the morning the exhumation has taken place and the body of Zbigniew Wassermann was taken out of the coffin because of doubts over the autopsy prepared by the Russian side,” said Zbigniew Rzepa, spokesman for the Polish military prosecutors office, which is conducting an investigation into the crash.

Rzepa said the body would be examined for several days, but declined to say whether more exhumations could follow.

Analysts say if the exhumation proves the autopsy was deficient, it could further strain Polish-Russian relations and pile pressure on the centre-right cabinet of Prime Minister Donald Tusk ahead of parliamentary elections due on October 9.

Malgorzata Wassermann, daughter of the former member of the main opposition, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, previously said she was certain the autopsy documents were faulty because her father had different physical features.

Several relatives of the crash victims have decided to run in the autumn elections, in which analysts say the crash is likely to play a prominent role. However, Malgorzata Wasserman said she would not run.

PiS blames Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his government of betraying Poland’s national interests in Warsaw’s dealings with Russia after the crash and point to the fact that Polish officials were not present when the autopsies were conducted shortly after the crash as one of many examples of neglect.

Warsaw says the identification of the bodies was problematic because many were torn apart and badly charred in the crash.

Still, Tusk’s defence minister quit after a government report in July chronicled a litany of errors and neglect by the pilots of the plane, military trainers, defence ministry and others, which it said led to the catastrophe.

Warsaw says the Russian ground controllers in Smolensk also contributed to the crash, which Moscow dismisses as false and puts the blame squarely on the Poles.

The row has hurt a fragile rapprochement between Poland and its former Soviet overlord, Russia, spearheaded by Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Relations between the two Slavic neighbours have traditionally been difficult over history, energy and security issues and hit a nadir under Poland’s previous government of conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton

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