June 9, 2010 3:00 am

Russian soldiers accused of stealing from air crash site

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Four Russian soldiers are being prosecuted for stealing credit cards from victims of the air crash in April that killed 95 people including Lech Kaczynski, Poland's president.

The scandal threatens a thaw in relations between Russia and Poland, begun earlier this year following the tragedy, and Russia's moves to apologise for the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in 1940 by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest.

The conscript soldiers had been sent to guard the crash site where they took credit cards from victims, according to the prosecutor's office. The soldiers used the cards to steal a total of 60,345 roubles ($1,900, €1,600, £1,300), it said.

Poland has been investigating the theft of this sum from the credit cards belonging to historian Andrzej Przewoznik, who died in the crash.

"All four accused have admitted what they did and are actively co-operating with the investigation," said Vladimir Markin, spokesman for Russia's prosecutor's office.

The prosecutor's office said in a statement that three of the accused had criminal records.

Russia's defence ministry said it would apologise for the theft and pay back the stolen money if the soldiers were found guilty.

"As soon as the suspected servicemen are found guilty and held responsible by a court, the defence ministry will make an apology and will be ready to immediately compensate the stolen funds," said Alexei Kuznetsov, the ministry spokesman, according to Russian agency Itar-Tass.

Mishandling the incident could destroy much of the goodwill generated by Russia among Poles, which Russian foreign policy experts regard as critical to an effort to create better relations with Europe.

Poles have traditionally been wary of Russia, which ruled much of Poland during the 19th century.

Poles have largely praised efforts by Russia to cooperate following the air disaster and for the effort to mend fences over the unhealed wound of the Katyn massacre.

Valdimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, met his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, in April at the site of the massacre and laid a wreath to the victims.

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