, KRAKOW, Apr 18 – The bodies of Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife began their final journey to a state funeral in Krakow on Sunday, as a Europe-wide cloud of volanic ash kept many world leaders away.
Thousands of mourners gathered in the southern city as a military aircraft took the couple\’s coffins from Warsaw, flying under the ash cloud that has caused global travel chaos and foiled US President Barack Obama from coming.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain\’s Prince Charles and South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-Chan also announced that they cannot attend.
Grieving residents lined the streets of the capital as the cortege headed to Warsaw airport, where soldiers solmenly carried the Kaczynskis\’ coffins onto the flight to Krakow.
The burial will be the climax of an outpouring of national grief since they and 94 others, mostly senior military and civilian figures, died in an air crash in Russia eight days earlier.
Kaczynski, an often divisive nationalist in life, and his wife 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."
"For me it is an obligation to come, it\’s a matter of conscience, I have to be there," said Malgorzata Piszczkiewicz-Sroka, 36, a trader.
"My family was anti-communist, active in Solidarity like the president was then," she said, referring to the trade union that helped bring down communism in Poland in 1989.
The funeral comes a day after more than 100,000 mourners 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 caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption, which has stranded millions of air travellers across Europe.
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.
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."
It was not immediately clear whether Russia\’s President Dmitry Medvedev would also be forced to stay away.
In Krakow, 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.
They will lowered into a sarcophagus inscribed with their names and a cross. It will lie next to that of Poland\’s revered independence leader, Jozef Pilsudski.
Elected in 2005, the conservative Kaczynski caused ructions at home and abroad, but the crash has brought unity to Poland\’s fractious political scene, as well as rapprochement with historic foe Russia.
Kaczynski\’s Tupolev Tu-154 jet slammed into a forest near Smolensk in western Russia — while en route to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces.