by Staff Writers
Smolensk, Russia (AFP) April 10, 2010
The red and white tail fin caked with mud stood out like a beacon in the grey, fog-smothered forest in western Russia where polish President Lech Kaczynski's plane crashed Saturday.
Painted the colours of Poland's flag, it was an eerie reminder of another tragedy -- the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and other elites by Soviet secret police in 1940 that Kaczynski was travelling to commemorate.
Emergency workers and officials milled about the swampy fields strewn with debris but with no other sign of life amid the wreckage.
One wing stood almost perpendicular among broken trees, the landing gear turned on one side, while other large chunks of the plane -- a red-painted engine and charred pieces of the fuselage -- were ripped apart in the crash.
Many parts of the plane were still in flames as firefighters trampled through mud and woods to the site of the disaster, their trucks parked on the nearby runways of Smolensk airport.
Television footage showed firefighters struggling to tackle the fires, dragging hoses through the wreckage.
Authorities cordoned off the fields around the crash site, an AFP reporter saw, and were waiting for larger salvage crews to arrive.
Over two dozen grey-faced and rattled Polish journalists, who had come to the area for the anniversary of the 1940 massacre in Katyn forest, stood grimly in the parking lot outside the sealed-off airport.
Smolensk airport officials who had been awaiting Kaczynski's arrival since early morning said his plane had circled several times in the low visibility.
It had tried to land three times before skimming the treetops and crashing sideways on its fourth descent, eyewitnesses said.
Due to thick fog overhanging the region, another plane scheduled to land earlier in the day had turned back, though a third touched down without incident in the morning, officials said.
Emergency workers were cutting down trees around the airport to allow vehicles to pass and clearing roads leading off the runway which were littered with refuse from the crash.
Body bags were brought to the scene, rescuers said, adding they would soon begin retrieving the victims' remains. Authorities have said 96 people were on the plane including many top Polish military commanders.
The Katyn forest near the crash site has become known as the "forest of death" because of the 1940 massacre of Polish officers and other members of the country's elite captured when Soviet forces invaded eastern Poland.
The massacre, which the Soviet Union long blamed on the Nazis, has been a long-standing sore point in Russian-Polish relations.
Intellectuals, policemen and other public servants were killed by Joseph Stalin's NKVD in the massacre, though most victims were officers.
On Wednesday the Russian and Polish prime ministers, Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk, had honoured the murdered Poles in an unprecedented joint ceremony in the Katyn Forest.
Kaczynski, a frequent critic of both Russia and Tusk, was not invited to the ceremony but made it clear he wanted to pay his own tribute.
Aerospace News at SpaceMart.com
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