Polish funeral set to go ahead despite ash cloud

WARSAW Fri Apr 16, 2010 5:42pm EDT

1 of 10. Priests pray next to a stage for a commemoration ceremony for plane crash victims at Pilsudski square in Warsaw April 16, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski

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WARSAW (Reuters) - The Polish president's funeral looks set to go ahead as planned on Sunday, at his family's insistence, despite a cloud of volcanic ash that has shut Europe's airports and may prevent world leaders attending.

U.S. President Barack Obama is among dozens of leaders scheduled to travel to Krakow in southern Poland for Sunday's funeral of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, killed with 94 others in a plane crash in Russia last Saturday.

Tens of thousands of mourners continued to file past the Kaczynskis' coffins in Warsaw's presidential palace on Friday.

Some had been waiting up to 18 hours to view the coffins, a measure of the grief felt by many Poles over the worst single disaster to strike their country since World War Two.

The heads of Poland's armed forces, its central bank governor and opposition lawmakers also perished when the aging Tupolev plane crashed in thick fog while trying to land near Smolensk in western Russia.

Warsaw's picturesque Old Town, where the palace is located, has been transformed into a shrine, festooned with flowers, candles, crucifixes and white and red national flags.

The president's administration said some 1,500 people were paying their respects to the bodies every hour, while Warsaw authorities said they had already collected 330 tonnes of withered flowers and burned out candles since Saturday.

The uncertainty following the death of key figures from the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) has thrown the established patterns of support for Poland's parties into confusion.

An opinion poll released late on Friday showed support for Poland's ruling Civic Platform (PO) had fallen by 11 percentage points, while the number of Poles favoring the conservative PiS, led by Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, stood flat at 25 percent.

Backed by PiS, Kaczynski was widely expected to seek another five-year term in a presidential vote originally due this autumn. The vote will now likely be held on June 20.

Public support for Kaczynski, a polarizing nationalist and euroskeptic, had dwindled to just 20 percent before his death. Polls showed he would have lost to Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's centrist PO.

Komorowski, who is also speaker of parliament, became acting president after Kaczynski's death. It is unclear who his main rivals will be in the election as the candidate of the main leftist opposition party SLD also died in the crash.

FUNERAL

The funeral plans hit an unexpected snag on Friday when the volcanic ash cloud drifting over Europe from Iceland forced the closure of airports, including in Poland, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers.

"I wish to say that the (Kaczynski) family's will is that the date of the funeral should not be postponed under any circumstances," presidential aide Jacek Sasin told reporters.

Poland's meteorology institute said in a statement posted on its website on Friday evening that the ash cloud would cover Poland by midnight, and partially disperse by Saturday evening.

As well as Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Prince Charles are among dignitaries from an estimated 96 countries expected to attend the funeral.

Krakow's Balice airport, due to handle most arrivals, shut on Friday because of the ash cloud.

The decision to bury the Kaczynskis at Wawel, usually reserved for Poland's kings and national heroes, was controversial. Some Poles believe Kaczynski does not deserve such an honor and have staged noisy protests against the move.

Kaczynski and his entourage had been traveling to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet forces in Katyn forest in western Russia -- an enduring symbol for Poles of their country's suffering.

The cause of the crash remains unclear, though Russian officials say the pilot ignored advice from air traffic controllers to divert to another airport because of the fog.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw, Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; Editing by Alison Williams)

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