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by Sharon Rondeau

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has assumed responsibility for the investigation into the Smolensk crash which killed 96 Polish dignitaries April 10

(Apr. 24, 2010) — While initial statements from Russian officials suggesting that the plane crash which killed 96 Polish government officials and other dignitaries on April 10 was caused by pilot error, Polish officials are contesting that theory.

The crash of the Tupolev-154 airliner en route to a ceremony commemorating the political execution of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers in 1940 killed everyone on board, including the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and his wife.

On April 20, the day of the crash, it was reported that at 17:17 hours, the Deputy Chief of the Russian Air Force Aleksandr Aloszyn, stated that “The crew of the Polish delegation airplane several times did not obey the commands from the flight controller at Smolensk Airport.”  However, the UK Mail reported on Wednesday that “Polish investigators…are refusing to rule out terrorism.”

An early report from Russia stated that the investigation “is looking into various versions of what happened, including unfavorable weather, human factor, technical malfunctions and others.”  However, immediately after the crash, the Russians declared that the aircraft, which had been overhauled at one of their plants late last year, could not have crashed due to technical failure.

On Wednesday, April 21, as the investigation had begun to move forward, a Polish report declared that “‘the investigation has four versions of the catastrophe – a terrorist act, technical failure, pilot error and the combination of the last two. None of them has not (sic) yet ruled out.'”

A second Polish report, also from Wednesday, claimed the investigation would be lengthy and that “the captain was ‘cool-headed’ and experienced.”

Over many centuries, Russia and Poland have had a bitter relationship and several wars, including the invasion by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939 which decimated the country and divided it between the two invading powers.  In the violence and destruction which followed, more than 230,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner-of-war, and thousands of Poles were sent to Siberia.

President Kaczynski was reportedly “a fierce critic of Russia” and had resisted what he saw as Russia’s attempt to expand its influence to Eastern European countries which had been part of the former Soviet Union.  An article dated September 9, 2009 reported that Kacyznski had asked Prime Minister Donald Tusk to disinvite Putin from attending a ceremony marking the beginning of World War II in Gdansk.

Both Russians and Poles were quick to say that the April 10 tragedy might serve to improve relations between their two countries.

On November 1, 2009, it was reported that Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, “has tried to build a pragmatic relationship with the Kremlin despite widespread and vocal calls in Poland for him to cool ties with Moscow.”

On April 11, the day following the crash, Bloomberg reported:

“Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s pro-euro Civic Platform party is likely to cement its grip on power in a presidential election that must now be held by June after President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash.”

Kaczynski had been considered “euro-skeptic,” and his choice to head Poland’s central bank, Slawomir Skrzypek, was one of those killed in the crash.

The writer also stated:

The only significant impediment to a Civic Platform victory may be the possibility of a wave of sympathy for the dead president, political commentators said, and that still probably won’t be enough to prevent Tusk extending his control over the political system.

Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had met in Russia to commemorate the Katyn massacre prior to the crash which killed the 96-person Polish delegation.

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