Tens of thousands of mourners gathered in Poland’s ancient capital yesterday for the burial of late Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife, but volcanic ash over Europe prevented many world leaders from joining them.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among those forced by the ash cloud to abandon plans to attend the funeral in Krakow for Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, killed in a plane crash in western Russia on April 10.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, however, did manage 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.
The funeral at Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral crowned a week of unprecedented national mourning for the Kaczynskis and 94 others, mostly senior political and military officials, who also died.
Police said about 60,000 people had gathered in central Krakow ahead of the transportation of the Kaczynskis’ coffins to Wawel Cathedral at 2:30pm where they would be placed in the crypt alongside Polish kings, national heroes and poets.
The coffins were taken to Krakow by military plane early yesterday, flying at low altitude because of the ash cloud that has shut Poland’s airspace and that of many other European countries to commercial traffic.
Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, a former prime minister, and other family members insisted the funeral go ahead yesterday as planned. The family, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Interim President Bronislaw Komorowski traveled to Krakow by train.
Obama said he regretted being unable to attend the funeral. US Ambassador Lee Feinstein was scheduled to represent him.
“President Kaczynski was a patriot and close friend and ally of the United States, as were those who died alongside him, and the American people will never forget the lives they led,” Obama said in a statement shortly before he had been scheduled to fly.
Merkel of Germany, Poland’s western neighbor and biggest trade partner, also expressed regret at having to call off her trip. The German president and foreign minister flew to Krakow from Berlin by helicopter for the funeral.
Leaders of other relatively nearby countries, such as Ukraine and the Czech Republic, were also expected to attend.
Medvedev’s presence was ironic, given that Kaczynski was a stern critic of what he called Russia’s “imperialism” toward former Soviet republics, such as Georgia and Ukraine.
Kaczynski flew to Georgia during its short 2008 war with Russia to demonstrate Polish solidarity with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The Georgian leader was also scheduled to attend the funeral.
When their plane crashed in thick fog, Kaczynski and his entourage had been 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.
Wawel Cathedral was the coronation site of virtually all of Poland’s monarchs and the adjacent castle was the center of government for five centuries until the end of the 16th century.
Some Poles have staged protest rallies and joined petitions against the decision to bury Kaczynski in such a hallowed spot.
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