Nations unite as Poles bid farewell to air crash president and his wife

SOME 150,000 Poles paid their last respects to Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, as the couple were interred yesterday among kings, poets and statesmen in the ancient Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

The ceremony was long on tradition but short on world leaders whose travel plans were wrecked by the enormous plume of volcanic ash that has blanketed Europe.

US president Barack Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Prince Charles and German chancellor Angela Merkel were among those who had to cancel at the last minute because of the volcanic ash cloud which has closed much of Europe's airspace.

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The leaders of Baltic and Balkan states came by car for the stately event. Czech president Vaclav Klaus took the train and car to get to Krakow.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev flew by plane from Moscow for the funeral. His presence was a further sign of the warming ties between the two countries, which had been strained for centuries, most recently because of communism and the 1940 Katyn massacre.

Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz acknowledged those new ties in remarks to the congregation, noting that the tragedy had given rise "to many layers of good between the people and nations".

"The sympathy and help we have received from Russian brothers has breathed new life into a hope for closer relations and reconciliation between our two Slavic nations," he said. "I direct these words to the president of Russia."

Despite the dearth of global dignitaries, no-one felt that the funeral should be postponed.

"I wouldn't move the funeral," said Bartek Kargol, who was among thousands of people waiting for the service. "This event is for our president."

In mostly Roman Catholic Poland, the funeral Mass was held at St Mary's Basilica, a 13th-century red-brick Gothic church set on a vast market square in Krakow's Old Town.

Inside, scores of Poland's political elite were seated in the ancient pews, shoulder to shoulder with leaders from Estonia, Belarus, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

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The Mass was led by Dziwisz. The Kaczynskis' daughter, Marta, granddaughter Ewa and the president's twin brother, Jaroslaw, sat near the two flag-draped coffins as Mozart's Requiem was played.

"Memory and truth are stronger than the greatest tragedies," Janusz Sniadek, the chairman of the Solidarity trade union, said. "The solidarity of Poles in these days of mourning is a tribute to you, your wife and all the victims."

After the Mass, the bodies of the first couple were carried atop a pair of artillery caissons pulled by army Humvees in a funeral procession led by the archbishop, priests and soldiers across the picturesque Renaissance old town and up the Wawel hill. This is the historic seat of kings where a fortress wall encircles a castle and a 1,000-year-old cathedral overlooks Vistula River.

As they made their way down the mile-long route, the crowds waved Polish flags, clapped and chanted: "Lech Kaczynski! We thank you!"

Twenty monks rang the massive Zygmunt Bell inside the Wawel Cathedral as the first couple were interred together in a honey-hued sarcophagus made from Turkish alabaster in a crypt under the cathedral's Silver Bells Tower.