Last updated: April 19, 2010 8:21 am

Thousands mourn as Poland buries its president

Soldiers carry the coffin of Lech Kaczynski, the late Polish president

Soldiers carry the coffin of Lech Kaczynski, the late Polish president, out of the Mariacki church in Krakow.

The state funeral for Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, and wife Maria, killed in last week’s aircraft catastrophe, was a quieter affair than originally planned as most foreign delegations had to pull out due to the cloud of volcanic ash that has halted air traffic in most of northern and central Europe.

Barack Obama, the US president, could not attend and other officials ranging from Canada’s Stephen Harper, to delegations from New Zealand and most of western Europe did the same.

Most of Poland’s immediate neighbours did take part, most significantly Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president. The Poles were especially keen on Russian participation because the Polish airplane crashed in Smolensk, western Russia, carrying a delegation to the nearby Katyn forest, where in 1940 the Soviets executed thousands of Polish officers. The shock of the crash has made the Russians more open to admitting that the Soviet Union was responsible for the crime, and has warmed Polish-Russian relations.

“President Lech Kaczynski died on the way to commemorations in Katyn where he was to give an important speech reminding of the tragedy from 1940,” said Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament and acting president, after the funeral mass, adding that Kaczynski’s death has made the world more aware of Katyn, and may make it possible to heal the harm to Polish-Russian relations caused by the massacre.

LOT Polish airlines has halted all domestic and international flights until at least Monday afternoon, and Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, and Mr Komorowski travelled to Krakow by train.

The Kaczynskis were brought to Krakow from Warsaw by a low-flying military transport aircraft, and were then driven into the centre of the city as hundreds of people lined the road, throwing flowers at the hearses.

As many as 150,000 people, many carrying Polish flags decorated with black mourning ribbons, stood quietly in the sunshine in Krakow’s medieval square to watch the funeral on large television screens. Inside the basilica of St Mary, the city’s landmark Mariacki Church, the caskets of the first couple lay in state, with generals standing guard, while dignitaries and purple-clad bishops crowded near the altar.

An ashen-faced Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president’s identical twin brother and the country’s former prime minister, looked on.

After the funeral, soldiers laid the caskets on artillery carriages drawn by green combat vehicles, which slowly rode up the hill to the nearby Wawel castle, the traditional residence of Polish kings. The crowd chanted: “Thank-you Lech Kaczynski.”

The decision to bury the first couple in the crypt below Krakow’s Wawel cathedral was very controversial, even provoking scattered protests in the city. The crypt contains the remains of Polish royalty as well as national political and literary heroes. Mr Kaczynski was not a very popular president, and would have likely lost his bid for re-election in the autumn, but his tragic death has turned him into a patriotic icon.

“The president represents values I hold dear; I think it’s right that he is going to lie in the Wawel,” said Bozena Wojtas as she watched the funeral cortege slowly march away.

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