Volcanic ash: World leaders cancel as Poles mass for funeral

Last Updated: Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 09:25

Krakow: Up to a million Poles were expected to fill the streets of Krakow on Sunday for the funeral of president Lech Kaczynski, even as travel problems kept many international leaders away.

Poles were flocking to the historic city ahead of the ceremony, though US President Barack Obama and others were forced to abandon plans to attend because of the air travel chaos caused by ash from an Icelandic volcano.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain`s Prince Charles and South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-Chan also announced overnight that they could not be able to attend for the same reason.

Sunday`s burial of Kaczynski and his wife will be the climax of an outpouring of grief since they and 94 other mostly senior figures died in an air crash in Russia on April 10.

Kaczynski, an often divisive nationalist in life, and his spouse Maria will be laid to rest in the cathedral crypt of Krakow`s hilltop Wawel castle where Poland`s past kings and national heroes already lie.

Krakow city spokesman Filip Szatanik said it would be "one of the largest, if not the largest single event the city has seen over the last couple hundred years."

The crash claimed the lives of much of Poland`s elite, including the country`s military chief, the heads of all three armed forces, the governor of the central bank and iconic opponents of Poland`s communist-era regime.

Kaczynski`s Tupolev Tu-154 jet slammed into a forest near Smolensk in western Russia -- while en route to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces.

Sunday`s funeral comes a day after more than 100,000 mourners, many waving red and white Polish flags, massed in Warsaw`s main Pilsudski square for an emotional public memorial service for all the victims of the crash.

Many of the more than 70 foreign dignitaries set to attend the funeral on Sunday had to cancel to avoid the disruption to air traffic caused by a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano.

Leaders of countries close to Poland, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, took to the roads and railways to get to Krakow in time.

But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Sweden`s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Turkish President Abdullah Gul were among others who cancelled their trips.

Obama sent his regrets in a White House statement, adding that "Michelle and I continue to have the Polish people in our thoughts and prayers, and will support them in any way I can as they recover from this terrible tragedy."

It was not immediately clear on Saturday evening whether Russia`s President Dmitry Medvedev would also be forced to stay away.

The coffins of the Kaczynskis were to be flown from the capital Warsaw to Krakow early on Sunday by military jet, despite the closure of Polish airspace by the volcanic plume.

There will first be a mass at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) in Krakow`s Basilica of Our Lady. Only family, friends and Polish and foreign leaders will be allowed in but ordinary mourners will be able to watch on big screens.

The coffins will then be taken on gun carriages to Wawel cathedral for a funeral service and a 21 gun artillery salute.

They will be lowered into a sarcophagus inscribed with their names and a cross. It will lie next to that of Poland`s revered independence leader, Jozef Pilsudski.

Elected in 2005, the conservative Kaczynski caused ructions at home and abroad, but the crash has brought unity to Poland`s fractious political scene, as well as rapprochement with historic foe Russia

Mourners were already preparing in Krakow over the weekend.

Bureau Report



First Published: Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 09:25

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