lech-420x0Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria arriving in Slovenia in 2008.

POLISH President Lech Kaczynski and some of his country’s highest military and civilian leaders died when the presidential plane crashed while landing in thick fog in western Russia yesterday, killing all 96 people on board.

Russian and Polish officials said the Soviet-era Tupolev was taking the President, his wife, Maria, and staff to events marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police.

Army chief of staff General Franciszek Gagor, National Bank president Slawomir Skrzypek and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer were also on board, the Polish Foreign Ministry said.

Russia’s Emergency Ministry said there were 96 dead, 88 of whom were part of a Polish state delegation.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski, said 89 people had been on the passenger list but one person had not shown up.

”We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland,” Mr Paszkowski said. ”We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed.”

Russian television showed footage from the crash site, with pieces of the plane scattered amid trees. Small fires burnt in woods shrouded with fog. A tail fin with the Polish red-and-white colours stuck up from the debris.

”The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart,” regional governor Sergei Anufriev said. ”Nobody has survived the disaster.”

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed official from Smolensk as saying: ”The cause of the plane crash was apparently an error by the crew during the approach to landing.”

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev offered condolences to Poland and vowed a thorough investigation would take place.

Mr Medvedev appointed Mr Putin to head a commission to investigate the crash and sent his emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, to the site.

The aircraft crashed a few hundred metres short of the runway at the Severny airport outside Smolensk. Mr Kaczynski was on his way to attend commemorative ceremonies for the Katyn massacre, which decimated Poland’s military and intellectual elite 70 years ago.

Mr Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, attended a memorial for the victims of the massacre at Katyn three days ago.

The Putin-Tusk meeting there was seen as a huge symbolic advance in Russia’s often thorny relations with Poland.

In Warsaw, Mr Tusk called an emergency meeting of his cabinet and the national flag was lowered to half-mast at the presidential palace, where people gathered to lay flowers and light candles.

Black ribbons appeared in windows in the Polish capital.

Mr Kaczynski, 60, won office in December 2005.