Poland's historic city of Krakow is preparing for up to one million mourners at the Sunday funeral of President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in a plane crash last week along with his wife and 94 others, including many top officials.
AFP - Poland's historic city of Krakow is preparing for a up to one million mourners at Sunday's funeral of president Lech Kaczynski as the nation bids farewell after his death in an air crash.
"This will be one of the largest, if not the largest single event the city has seen over the last couple hundred years," Krakow city spokesman Filip Szatanik told AFP amid preparations for the ceremony.
Poland pays last respects to President Lech Kaczynski
"We're expecting as many as a million people based on our experience with pope John Paul II's pilgrimages -- one papal mass (here) attracted nearly two million," Szatanik said.
World leaders including US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev could be kept away from the funeral by the cloud of volcanic from Iceland that has played havoc with European air travel.
But the city authorities are still working on the assumption that they will be here despite the closure of Polish airspace to commercial traffic, and are scrambling to prepare what for Krakow is an unprecedented security operation.
"We've had very little time, really just four days, but we are putting in place all the security measures," Szatanik said. "There will be very restricted access to the areas where foreign guests are expected."
Krakow airport spokesperson Justyna Zajaczkowska said they were still bracing to receive dozens of overseas officials on Sunday despite the volcanic disruption.
"We're prepared to receive 30 to 40 foreign delegations from 4:00 am (0200 GMT) to just after 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) Sunday," Zajaczkowska said.
Polish mourners were already gathering Friday in the shadow of Krakow's historic Wawel Castle, once the seat of Polish kings, where Kaczynski and his wife Maria will be buried.
At the foot of a large wooden cross dedicated to the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish officers were slaughtered by Soviet forces during World War II, they lit candles and offered prayers.
Kaczynski and dozens of Polish dignitaries were headed to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Katyn when their plane crashed in western Russia, killing all 96 people on board.
An honour guard of Polish scouts kept a vigil at the cross adorned with portraits of the presidential couple.
"This is a very, very sorrowful human tragedy, especially in light of the fact they were going to honour the victims of Katyn," said Maria Musial, 58, lighting a candle at the foot of the crucifix and making a sign of the cross.
She said she planned to be in Krakow's sprawling Blonie Meadow on Sunday to watch the funeral ceremonies on huge screens that city officials have promised to set up.
John Paul II, who was pontiff from 1978 until his death in 2005, celebrated masses on Blonie Meadow during pilgrimages to his homeland which attracted vast congregations.
The coffins of the Kaczynski couple will first be taken to Krakow's Basilica of Our Lady in the heart of the picturesque Medieval Old Town square where the special envoy of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is to say mass.
They will then be carried to Wawel cathedral on gun carriages for the funeral, before the coffins are lowered into an alabaster sarcophagus in the crypt.
The plan brought hundreds of people onto the streets in protests earlier this week and sparked a Facebook campaign. Kaczynski's fiercely conservative and nationalist policies made him a divisive figure in Poland.
But mourners in Krakow said they did not want the row to threaten the sense of national unity that the accident had brought.
"It's an important event in the history of Poland and we Poles shouldn't be quarrelling at a time like this," Martin Buntow, 25, a scout master and Franciscan friar told AFP.
"Above all, it's a time for prayer."
Musial added: "They died in service to Poland and they deserve to be laid to rest in the Wawel."
Date created : 2010-04-17