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Polish leader offers olive branch at massacre site

Written by: Staff

KATYN, Russia, Sep 17 (Reuters) President Lech Kaczynski signalled today he wanted a fresh start in Poland's strained relations with Moscow when he visited the Russian forest where thousands of Polish officers were executed in 1940.

Kaczynski, dressed in black, laid a wreath at the site of the World War Two massacre in Katyn, western Russia, and said Poland and Russia should not dwell on past grievances.

''We have a democratic Poland and we have a new Russia -- there is no more Soviet Union, no more communist totalitarianism,'' said Kaczynski.

The massacres at Katyn and two other sites -- in which 15,000 Polish officers were shot and thrown into pits -- are regarded by most Poles as symbols of the repression their country suffered during decades of Soviet control.

Since Kaczynski came to power two years ago, Warsaw has blocked European Union partnership talks with Russia over a trade dispute, accused Moscow of using energy as a political weapon and angered the Kremlin by offering to host elements of a US missile defence shield that Russia opposes.

On his first visit to Russia, Kaczynski said the Katyn executions were ''an act of genocide'' but he absolved modern-day Russia of any residual responsibility.

''Today we must commemorate them (the victims), we must remember them -- and we shall remember them. Historical memory is extremely important -- both of good and of evil. But this does not mean that we intend only to live this memory,'' he said.

''Of those who committed crimes at Katyn, hardly any are still alive. Those who govern Russia and Poland today were, as far as they were alive then, very young children and do not bear any responsibility for events that took place there.

SYMBOLISM ''We have thus to live in the future ... and to the past we must look calmly, with balance, but also with regard for the truth.'' The Polish president said Warsaw wanted good relations with all its neighbours.

He flew home after 1-1/2 hours at the Katyn memorial complex without holding any meetings with senior Russian officials.

Russia was represented by local officials, and a joint Russian-Polish honour guard took part in the wreath-laying ceremonies.

The visit took place on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 after Hitler and Stalin partitioned the country in a short-lived pact.

Accompanied by his wife, Kaczynski stopped at a memorial to Soviet citizens also killed at Katyn. He then walked silently around a memorial where the names of the Polish victims are engraved on metal plates.

He brought soil with him from another mass burial place for Polish soldiers in Ukraine, which had been blessed by Polish-born Pope John Paul II before his death in 2005.

Kaczynski scattered the earth on a burial mound at Katyn.

Warsaw has long pushed for Moscow to bring to account the perpetrators of the massacre. The Russians have refused to declassify many of the documents on the killings in government archives.


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