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Warsaw: Mourning and protest

While some Poles wait in line to pay their respects, others protest chosen burial spot for Lech Kaczynski.

A girl scout holding flowers prepares to enter the presidential palace to bid farewell to the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in Warsaw, April 14, 2010. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s capital has been turned into a funeral home in the week following the air crash in western Russia that killed the country’s president and many other prominent political and military figures.

Tens of thousands of people have waited for as long as 12 hours to pay their respects to Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, and to his wife Maria, who are lying in state in the presidential palace.

About two miles down Warsaw’s main ceremonial avenue, another line of people waits to pay their respects to Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president of the Cold War-era Polish government in exile, based in London. Across the street is the defense ministry, where a tent guarded by two soldiers holds a book of condolences for the senior commanders of all branches of the armed forces, as well as the deputy minister of defense, who were killed in the disaster.

The city’s airport has seen almost daily flights carrying coffins of the dead from Moscow, where they were taken from the western Russian city of Smolensk for identification after the crash.

“We are Poles and we really respected the president,” said Barbara Adamiszyn, 75, standing in front of the presidential palace where the front courtyard has been filled with flowers, votive candles and flags.

What has made the deaths particularly poignant is where the accident took place — not far from the Katyn forest, one of the places where the Soviets executed more than 22,000 captured Polish officers in 1940.

“The president’s death has allowed him to complete his mission — to let the world know about Katyn,” said Magda Kamieniecka, 34, also standing in front of the palace.

Although there were immediate suspicions about the cause of the crash, early investigations seem to indicate it was an accident. The Russian air traffic controllers at the mainly military airport tried to divert the Polish aircraft to another airport, but the military pilots were determined to try landing, despite the thick fog.

Photographs taken at the scene show treetops sheared off starting just under a mile from the runway. The Russian-built Tu-154 airliner then hit a larger tree with its wing, spun off to the side and smashed into the ground, immediately killing everyone on board.

Polish investigators who have listened to the black boxes retrieved from the crash say the crew was aware they were going to crash from three to five seconds before the final impact, although it is unclear if the passengers were also aware.

Russian authorities have been very cooperative, eager to ensure the blame for the catastrophe does not affix to them.