Poland bids farewell to first couple in state funeral

Polish and foreign leaders attended a funeral mass for Kaczynski and his wife Maria, but a volcanic ash cloud over Europe prevented some overseas guests from joining them.

Poland bids farewell to first couple in state funeral

Polish and foreign leaders attended a funeral mass on Sunday for President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, but a volcanic ash cloud over Europe prevented some overseas guests from joining them.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul and U.S. President Barack Obama were among those forced by the ash cloud to abandon plans to attend the funeral in Krakow for the Kaczynskis, killed on April 10 with 94 other, mostly senior, political and military officials in a plane crash in Russia.

However, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev managed to fly to the city, reinforcing a strong message of Russian solidarity since the crash that has raised Polish hopes for an improvement in long-strained ties with their communist-era overlord.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz praised Russia during the funeral mass, which was held in St Mary's Basilica, a mediaeval church famed for housing Europe's largest carved Gothic altar.

"The tragedy of eight days ago and the sympathy and help extended by the Russians in these days give us hope for better relations between our two great nations. I direct those words to Mr President Medvedev," Dziwisz said.

Nearby, the coffins of Poland's first couple were both draped with the red and white national flag.

Kaczynski's daughter Marta and his twin brother Jaroslaw, who heads Poland's main opposition party, led the mourners. They had insisted the funeral go ahead on Sunday, despite the ash cloud that has closed Polish and other European airports.

Other mourners included Poland's interim President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his government and the presidents of Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Georgia.

"Unprecedented mourning"

Outside, an estimated 50,000 mourners watched the mass on large screens. The Kaczynskis' coffins were later to be taken to Wawel cathedral where they would be laid to rest in a crypt normally reserved for Polish kings, national heroes and poets.

The funeral crowns a week of unprecedented national mourning for the Kaczynskis and the 94 others who perished in the crash.

In Warsaw, Poles had queued through Saturday night to view the coffins while they remained on public display. Early on Sunday, the coffins were flown by military plane to Krakow at a low altitude because of the volcanic ash cloud.

Medvedev's presence was ironic, given that Kaczynski was a stern critic of what he called Russia's "imperialism" towards ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine. During his five years as president, Kaczynski never visited Moscow.

Kaczynski's plane crashed while heading to Katyn forest in western Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret police.

Some Poles have staged protest rallies and joined petitions on social media site Facebook against the decision to bury Kaczynski in such a hallowed spot.

Wawel cathedral was the coronation site of virtually all of Poland's monarchs and the adjacent castle was the centre of government for five centuries until the end of the 16th century.

Agencies

Last Mod: 18 Nisan 2010, 17:50
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