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Russia blames Polish crew in Kaczynski air crash

Russia Poland Plane Crash

April 11, 2010: Russian investigators work near the wreckage of the Polish presidential plane, that crashed just outside the Smolensk airport in Russia. Russian officials investigating the airplane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski have now released a report that places the blame on the Poles alone. (AP)

Russian officials investigating the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski placed the blame squarely on the Poles on Wednesday, saying the crew was pressured to land in bad weather by an air force commander who had been drinking.

Kaczynski and 95 others, including his wife, died in April 2010 when their Tu-154 plane crashed while trying to land in Smolensk, Russia. There were no survivors.

In Poland, the report met with accusations that it is unbalanced and failed to acknowledged any possible Russian mistakes. The issue of responsibility has a strong emotional component in Poland, where suspicions of Russia remain strong due to Moscow's domination of Poland in communist times.

Polish Interior Minister Jerzy Miller, who is heading a separate Polish investigation, did not contest the findings, but underlined that he believes both Polish and Russian aviation officials were "unprepared" for ensuring a safe landing.

The pilots' decision to land in heavy fog at an airport with only basic navigation equipment has been accepted by both as the main reason for the crash.

However, Poles have been eagerly awaiting the Russian report in order to learn if other factors — such as possible mistakes by Russian air traffic controllers or technical conditions at the airport — might also have played a role.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president's twin brother and head of the opposition Law and Justice party, sharply criticized the Russian report, calling it a "mockery of Poland." He said it failed to offer convincing evidence the Poles are solely responsible, saying the main findings were based on speculation.

In Moscow, officials of the Interstate Aviation Committee, which investigates crashes in much of the former Soviet Union, said the pilots were pressured to land by Poland's air force commander, Gen. Andrzej Blasik, who was in the cockpit. His very presence was a violation of so-called "sterile cockpit" safety rules and he had a blood-alcohol level of about 0.06 percent, the Russian investigators said. That level is enough to impair reasoning.

Blasik's presence in the cockpit "had a psychological influence on the commander's decision to take an unjustified risk by continuing the descent with the overwhelming goal of landing by all means necessary," committee chairwoman Tatiana Anodina told a news conference announcing the final results of the investigation.

Kaczynski slammed that conclusion, saying that a suggestion of pressure on the pilots is an example of speculation based only on what "some psychologists are saying" with no confirmation from the flight recorders.

He also said he was not fully convinced that Blasik had been drinking but that in any case there is no proof that a "small amount of alcohol" would have contributed to the plane crash.

"This report is a mockery of Poland," Kaczynski said.

The blood-alcohol content found in Blasik was lower than what is generally considered outright intoxication. But the professional pilots and physicians group www.flightphysical.com says "the number of serious errors committed by pilots dramatically increases at or above concentrations of 0.04 percent," a level lower than Blasik's.

The report found no fault with Russian air traffic controllers, who "gave no permission to land," said Alexei Morozov, the head of the committee's technical commission.

"They gave permission to descend to 100 meters," he said. "The crew should have started a second attempt, but instead continued their unauthorized descent."

Morozov added that a glitch in one of the plane's gauges prompted the crew to think the plane was more than 100 meters above the ground.

The crew of another Polish plane, a Yak-40 that that had already landed at the Smolensk airport shortly beforehand, recommended that the presidential aircraft's crew attempt a landing, Morozov said.

"The Yak-40's pilots gave a very emotional warning about the bad weather, but suggested that (the second plane) try to land," Morozov said.

Kaczynski and his delegation were on their way to attend a ceremony commemorating the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 20,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war were killed by the Soviet secret police.

Efforts to cover up responsibility for the massacre have long been a significant irritant in relations between Poland and Russia. But Russia has recently attempted to overcome the tensions by releasing thick dossiers of documents and acknowledging the killings were ordered by dictator Josef Stalin.

The symbolic importance of Kaczynski's planned visit apparently increased the pressure to land the aircraft despite the poor conditions. Morozov said there was no "concrete command" from Kaczynski to land. But he referred to one of the pilots saying "he will get mad at me," which is interpreted as evidence that the pilots expected the president to be angry if they did not get to the ceremonies on time.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Monika Scislowska and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.