Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Saturday, 17 April 2010 16:17 UK

Poland holds memorial services for plane crash victims

Prime Minister Donald Tusk speaks at the memorial service

Tens of thousands of people have attended memorial services in the Polish capital, Warsaw, for the 96 victims of last weekend's plane crash.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and key public figures, including the heads of the armed forces, were among the dead.

A three-hour memorial included poems, music and speeches in honour of those who died, as well as a Mass service.

A funeral Mass is now under way at St John's Cathedral for Mr Kaczynski and his wife, ahead of Sunday's burial.

The state funeral and burial will be in Krakow. Some 80 foreign delegations had been expected to attend but some, including Japan's and India's, have already cancelled their trip because of the flight disruption in Europe caused by the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland.

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have now said they will be unable to attend.

'Greatest tragedy'

Saturday's memorial service took place in Warsaw's Pilsudski Square - the city's largest open-air square. It was filled with people, among them relatives and friends of the victims of the air crash in western Russia.

Lech Kaczynski's daughter Marta and twin Jaroslaw (front) at the service
Lech Kaczynski's daughter Marta and twin Jaroslaw (front) at the service

It is the traditional location for such public events and is where Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass during his first pilgrimage to his homeland in 1979.

President Kaczynski's daughter and twin brother attended, as did past leaders like President Lech Walesa.

The crowds were so big that many watched the service on large television screens that were erected in the square and in an adjacent park.

Beside a white cross on the altar, large black and white photographs showed the faces of each of the victims.

The names of all 96 people killed were read out. It took more than 20 minutes to get through the list.

National leaders:
President Lech Kaczynski and wife Maria
Former President-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski
Top civil servant:
Slawomir Skrzypek National Bank of Poland chairman
Other politicians:
Wladyslaw Stasiak chief of the president's chancellery Aleksander Szczyglo chief of the National Security Office
Jerzy Szmajdzinski deputy speaker of the lower house Andrzej Kremer Foreign Ministry's undersecretary of state Stanislaw Komorowski deputy minister of national defence Przemyslaw Gosiewski Law and Justice party deputy chair
Military figures:
Franciszek Gagor chief of the general staff
Andrzej Blasik head of the air force
Andrzej Karweta head of the navy
Tadeusz Buk land forces commander
Aleksander Szczyglo head of the National Security Office
Cultural figures:
Andrzej Przewoznik head of Poland's Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites
Tomasz Merta chief historical conservator

Later, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he still found it hard to comprehend the tragedy, which he said was the greatest for the country since World War II.

A Mass on a specially designed stage in the shape of a staircase was celebrated by Polish bishops and there was a message from Vatican envoy Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

The coffins of Mr Kaczynski and his wife Maria Kaczynska, who have been lying in state in the presidential palace since Tuesday, were then taken to nearby St John's Cathedral.

Archbishop of Warsaw Kazimierz Nycz, who is leading the Mass there, said: "Warsaw and Poland have passed the test of solidarity and patriotism.

"We have to promise here, in front of the president's coffin, that it wasn't a futile thing, but a true test of maturity.

There will be an overnight vigil before the coffins are taken to Krakow.

Some heads of state say they will defy the volcanic ash and use trains and cars to get to Krakow.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy still intends to attend, even though French airspace has been badly affected by the disruption, a spokesman said.

But a number of those wanting to attend, including UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and the Prince of Wales, have had to cancel.

Mr Kaczynski's family has insisted the funeral should go ahead as planned.

Before Saturday's ceremony, church bells were rung and sirens wailed to mark the exact time of the disaster a week ago.

At 0856 (0756 GMT), the nation paused for one minute to mark the moment when the plane went down. In Warsaw, cars stopped and pedestrians stood still.

The presidential jet crashed while carrying a delegation to a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 Polish officers were slaughtered by Soviet forces in World War II.

Victims of the crash included the country's military chief, the heads of all three armed forces, the governor of the central bank and the head of the country's Olympic committee.

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