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Poland marks fifth anniversary of Smolensk plane disaster

Poland is marking the anniversary of the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and many members of his entourage in 2010. The catastrophe deepened the historical rift between Warsaw and Moscow.

Poland held ceremonies on Friday to commemorate the death of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and more than 90 members of his entourage in a plane crash near the western Russian city of Smolensk in 2010.

President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and other leading political figures attended a memorial service at the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw to commemorate the disaster, in which the presidential plane crashed in heavy fog while attempting to land.

Later in the day, a memorial march was to be held in the capital led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the surviving twin brother of the late president.

Fraught relations

The disaster led to increased tensions with Russia, with some Poles believing that the crash was a deliberate assassination by Russian authorities, or that Russian air traffic controllers were to blame for the disaster. Two of the Russian controllers were last month charged by Poland of having some responsibility for the catastrophe.

On Thursday, Russian investigators, however, rejected out of hand any suggestion that false guidance from the air traffic controllers had led to the crash.

Debris at the crash site

The crash plunged Poland into shock

"The Russian investigation sees no grounds to talk about even a minimal responsibility of the flight control group for the air crash," the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

"They were acting in full accordance with instructions and international civil aviation rules," it added, saying the crash was caused by "a combination of factors."

Leaked evidence

Polish transcripts of conversations held in the plane's cockpit shortly before the crash have meanwhile lent weight to Russian claims that the Polish pilots were largely to blame for choosing to land in heavy fog. They suggest that a Polish air force commander pressured the pilots into making the landing despite the adverse weather conditions - evidence which also undermines any assassination theory.

The Russian investigators said in their statement that the investigation was almost finished, but that they still needed information from the Polish side before they can conclude the probe and send the plane debris to Poland.

Poland has been angered by Russia's refusal so far to hand over the wreckage. The Russian statement said, however, that keeping evidence during an ongoing investigation was "standard international practice."

tj/jil (AFP, AP)