World leaders cancel as Poles mass for funeral

Late Polish president Lech Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski (L), and daughter Marta attend a funeral mass at the St.John Cathedral in Warsaw on Saturday. AFP photo

KRAKOW, Poland (AFP) – Up to a million Poles were expected to fill the streets of Krakow Sunday for the funeral of president Lech Kaczynski, even as travel problems kept many international leaders away.

Poles were flocking to the historic city ahead of the ceremony, though US President Barack Obama and others were forced to abandon plans to attend because of the air travel chaos caused by ash from an Icelandic volcano.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain's Prince Charles and South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-Chan also announced overnight that they could not be able to attend for the same reason.

Sunday's burial of Kaczynski and his wife will be the climax of an outpouring of grief since they and 94 other mostly senior figures died in an air crash in Russia on April 10.

Kaczynski, an often divisive nationalist in life, and his spouse Maria will be laid to rest in the cathedral crypt of Krakow's hilltop Wawel castle where Poland's past kings and national heroes already lie.

Krakow city spokesman Filip Szatanik told AFP it would be "one of the largest, if not the largest single event the city has seen over the last couple hundred years."

The crash claimed the lives of much of Poland's elite, including the country's military chief, the heads of all three armed forces, the governor of the central bank and iconic opponents of Poland's communist-era regime.

Kaczynski's Tupolev Tu-154 jet slammed into a forest near Smolensk in western Russia.

Sunday's funeral comes a day after more than 100,000 mourners, many waving red and white Polish flags, massed in Warsaw's main Pilsudski square for an emotional public memorial service for all the victims of the crash.

Many of the more than 70 foreign dignitaries set to attend the funeral on Sunday had to cancel to avoid the disruption to air traffic caused by a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano.

Leaders of countries close to Poland, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, took to the roads and railways to get to Krakow in time.

But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Turkish President Abdullah Gul were among others who cancelled their trips.

Obama sent his regrets in a White House statement, adding that "Michelle and I continue to have the Polish people in our thoughts and prayers, and will support them in any way I can as they recover from this terrible tragedy."

There will first be a mass at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) in Krakow's Basilica of Our Lady. Only family, friends and Polish and foreign leaders will be allowed in but ordinary mourners will be able to watch on big screens.

The coffins will then be taken on gun carriages to Wawel cathedral for a funeral service and a 21 gun artillery salute.

Mourners were already preparing in Krakow over the weekend.

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