Poland Accuses Two Russian Air Controllers of Role in 2010 Crash

Prosecutors in Warsaw have accused two Russian air-traffic controllers of contributing to the 2010 plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski along with several key members of the country’s political elite.

Polish investigators have filed a request with Russian authorities to question both men, who could face as long as eight years in prison if convicted, Ireneusz Szelag, a military prosecutor, told reporters on Friday. One of the controllers is suspected of direct responsibility, while the other was indirectly to blame for the crash in Smolensk, whose main cause was the result of errors by the Polish flight crew, he said.

“It’s not up to prosecutors to estimate the chances of this request being successful,” Szelag said at the news conference in Warsaw. “A crime committed on foreign soil needs to take into account international agreements that are binding for both Poland and the Russian Federation.”

The decision risks further rattling ties between the two countries as they grow strained over the conflict in neighboring Ukraine between the government in Kiev and pro-Russian separatists. Poland was among a group of European Union countries that spearheaded calls for tougher sanctions against Russia as punishment for its actions in Ukraine.

The air-traffic controllers were guiding the presidential plane, a Tupolev 154, as it attempted to land in heavy fog at a derelict military airport near Smolensk in western Russian on April 10, 2010.

The aircraft clipped trees, broke in two and crashed, killing all 97 on board including central bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek, leaders of the country’s main opposition parties and the military.

Russian Reaction

The flight controllers aren’t to blame for the the crash, RIA Novosti said on Friday, citing Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s chief agency of criminal probes. Authorities are ready to cooperate with Poland on the probe, Markin was reported as saying.

Poland has demanded the return of the wreckage of the plane, which Russia has declined to do before completing its own investigation.

Szelag said errors by the crew were the “direct cause” of the crash because the pilot steered the plane to a low altitude despite poor visibility. Only one of the crew members was licensed to fly on this type of aircraft, he said.

The investigation has been extended to Oct. 10, although it was unlikely to be completed before the end of the year, according to Szelag.

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