WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s coffin returned home to a stunned nation on Sunday, a day after he and much of the country’s political and military elite perished in a plane crash in Russia.
Poland’s Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw and his daughter Marta were among those welcoming the coffin, draped in the red and white national flag, at Warsaw’s military airport.
Tens of thousands of people stood in silence along the 10 km route taken by the hearse to the presidential palace where Kaczynski’s coffin was expected to lie on public view.
Church bells tolled as the hearse, with its police escort, reached the palace, whose entrance gate has turned into a shrine festooned with flowers, candles, Polish flags and crucifixes.
Millions of mourners across this staunchly Roman Catholic nation packed into churches all through Sunday to pray for the dead. At noon, Poles observed two minutes of silence.
The bodies of the other crash victims, who included Kaczynski’s wife Maria, the top brass of Poland’s armed forces and opposition lawmakers, were sent to Moscow for identification and will return home in coming days.
Also in Moscow, Russian investigators were analysing evidence from the flight recorders.
“The recordings that we have confirm there were no technical problems with the plane,” Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Prosecutor General’s powerful investigative unit, said.
Kaczynski’s ageing Tupolev plane crashed in thick fog near Smolensk in western Russia on Saturday, killing all 96 people on board. Russian authorities had earlier put the death toll at 97.
Kaczynski had been planning to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by Soviet forces in the nearby Katyn forest.
Interfax news agency quoted the deputy chief of the Russian Air Force’s general staff, Alexander Alyoshin, as saying the pilot ignored orders from air traffic control not to land.
Komorowski has declared a week of national mourning and urged Poles to set aside their political differences. Kaczynski, a combative right-wing nationalist, was a polarising figure who made many enemies.
“We worked together to build Polish democracy,” said Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in 1989. Kaczynski was also a prominent Solidarity member.
“Differences later pushed us apart ... But that is a closed chapter now,” said Walesa, who often sparred with Kaczynski.
Ordinary Poles said the crash would leave deep scars.
“I thought to myself this is a moment I’ll always remember. Our grandparents lived through the war, our parents’ generation experienced martial law (in 1981-83) and this is the big shock of today’s younger generation,” said Agata Malinowska, 22, a sociology student at Warsaw University.
“Perhaps this (tragedy) is a sign to us to stop quarrelling and backbiting among ourselves,” said housewife Urszula Rutkowsa, 57.
Despite Poles’ deep sense of loss, officials and analysts said the crash should not pose any serious threat to the political and economic stability of Poland, a staunch member of NATO and the European Union.
“We continue to monitor the situation and are ready to take various decisions, but we don’t expect anything dangerous for the Polish economy to happen,” Michal Boni, an aide to Tusk, told a news conference.
Komorowski said he would set the date of a presidential election which had been due in October after holding talks with Poland’s political parties. Under the constitution the election must now be held by late June.
Komorowski, 58, is the presidential candidate of Tusk’s ruling pro-business, pro-euro Civic Platform (PO). Opinion polls suggest he would have defeated Kaczynski in the election.
Analysts said they expected an upsurge of sympathy for Kaczynski’s PiS but added that it was too early to predict whether this would translate into votes.
While the Polish president’s role is largely symbolic, he can veto government laws. Kaczynski had irked Tusk’s government several times by blocking health, media and pension reforms.
World leaders expressed shock and sorrow. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, Poland’s historic foe, told Poles: “This is a tragedy for us too. We feel your pain.”
He saw off Kaczynski’s coffin from Smolensk on Sunday after earlier paying his respects with Tusk at the site of the crash.
Kaczynski was a staunch critic of Putin’s Russia, which he saw veering away from democracy. Putin had invited Tusk, not Kaczynski, to ceremonies marking the Katyn massacre anniversary last week but the president decided to visit anyway.
Poles noted the irony of a crash that claimed the lives of so many members of Poland’s elite near the spot where Josef Stalin’s NKVD secret police shot dead some 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in 1940, wiping out much of the country’s wartime leadership.
Russia and neighbouring Ukraine have declared April 12 a day of mourning for victims of the crash.
Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Smolensk, and by Rob Strybel, Filip Kochan and Chris Borowski in Warsaw; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Jon Hemming