Polish president, 96 others dead plane crash in Russia

SMOLENSK, Russia (AP) - Polish President Lech Kaczynski and some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died on Saturday when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia, killing 97, Russian and Polish officials said.

The officials said there were no survivors on the 26-year-old Tupolev aircraft, which was taking the president, his wife and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre in Katyn forest of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.

Amateur video footage showed the plane taking off from Warsaw airport earlier on Saturday. The Polish foreign ministry said those on board included the army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, and heads of the air and land forces, the national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker and three lawmakers.

A Russian official said the crash took place after Russian dispatchers unsuccessfully asked the crew to divert from the military airport in North Smolensk and land instead in Minsk. A Smolensk regional government spokesman said Russian dispatchers had made the request to the aircraft's crew before the landing, because of the fog.

Traffic controllers generally have the final word in whether it is safe for a plane to land, but they can leave it to the pilots' discretion. The Interfax news agency quoted Air Force General Alexander Alyoshin as saying that the pilot disregarded instructions to fly to another airfield.

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