Poles are mourning their president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria who were among those killed in a plane crash in Western Russia. The speaker of parliament has taken over presidential duties in preparation for what will be early elections.
Poland's speaker of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, became the country's interim head of state Saturday after Polish radio adjusted its regular programming to announce that President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were among those killed in a plane crash in Western Russia.
New presidential elections are expected no later than June 20.
Officials said Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who held an emergency meeting of his Cabinet, wept when hearing about the plane crash.
Besides the presidential couple, all other people on board the plane reportedly died, including the country's army chief, its deputy foreign minister, the Central Bank governor and scores of other officials, legislators and crew members.
The aircraft crashed while the 60-year old President Kaczynski was on his way to memorial ceremonies at Russia's Katyn area, where 22,000 Poles were killed by Soviet forces, 70 years ago.
Previous Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski described the accident on Polish television as one of his country's biggest tragedies since the Katyn massacre.
He said people often say that nobody is indispensable. But, in his words, those who were killed on board the plane were all "irreplaceable". He explained that 70 years after thousands of Poles were wiped out during the Katyn massacre, "once again the elite of the country have been killed."
At the site where the commemoration was to take place a funeral service was held with people, some of them crying, saying prayers for those who died.
Poland's first post communist president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lech Walesa also mourned Mr. Kaczynski's death Saturday, despite tensions between the two men.
The late president had accused Walesa of spying for the Communist-secret service. Walesa, who has denied the charges, told Polish television however he will miss the president.
He explains that despite their differences the plane crash in Russia is "a great loss for the nation, which will be difficult to overcome."
And as the country prepared for a period of mourning, people were seen lighting candles and placing flowers in front of the Presidential Palace in Poland's capital Warsaw.
Special masses to remember the victims were also to be held later Saturday in Poland, a heavily Catholic nation, including in Warsaw and the city of Krakow.