PRAGUE (Reuters) - Vaclav Havel, an anti-Communist playwright who became Czech president and a worldwide symbol of peace and freedom after leading the bloodless "Velvet Revolution," died at the age of 75 on Sunday.
The former chain smoker died at his country home in Hradecek, north of Prague, of a long respiratory illness after surviving operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in the late 1990s that left him frail for more than a decade.
The diminutive playwright, who invited the Rolling Stones to medieval Prague castle, took Bill Clinton to a smoky Prague jazz club to play saxophone and was a friend of the Dalai Lama, rose to fame after facing down Prague's Communist rulers.
"His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
"He played a seminal role in the Velvet Revolution that won his people their freedom and inspired generations to reach for self-determination and dignity in all parts of the world."
His plays were banned for two decades and he was thrown into prison three times after launching Charter 77, a manifesto demanding the Communist government adhere to international standards for human rights.
"I am extremely moved," an emotional Prime Minister Petr Necas told Czech Television when told of Havel's death.
"He was a symbol and the face of our republic, and he is one of the most prominent figures of the politics of the last and the start of this century. His departure is a huge loss. He still had a lot to say in political and social life."
Just six months after completing his last jail sentence, Havel led hundreds of thousands of protesters in Prague's cobblestone streets in a peaceful uprising in November 1989 that ended Soviet-backed rule.
Just over a month later, he was installed in Prague Castle as president of Czechoslovakia.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter: "Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved the way for a Europe whole and free."
Dismayed at the looming breakup of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak states, he quit as president in 1992, but soon became leader of the newly-created Czech Republic.
As a symbol of peaceful transition to democracy, he helped the small country of 10 million to punch well above its weight in international politics.
"Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred" was Havel's trademark slogan that many Czechs recall from the revolution.
In later years, those words were often quoted in sarcasm as Czechs' early enthusiasm towards free market democracy collided with the reality of economic reforms and corrupt politics.
Havel lost some of his allure in the later years of his time at the castle. As president-philosopher, he struggled to uphold morality in a tumultuous era of economic transformation and murky business deals.
"He did not want to be a president," said Petruska Sustrova, a prominent Czech dissident and one of the first to sign Charter 77. "Ideally, he wanted to sit in a pub and reconcile quarrels. He was not very keen to enter politics, he thought it would cut him off from the normal world."
On Sunday, two soldiers stood to attention beside a picture of Havel at the castle in Prague as scores of mourners quietly lit candles and paid their respects.
Thousands more gathered on Prague's central Wenceslas Square, the site of the main protests of the Velvet Revolution. They waved a huge, 20-metre Czech flag and lit candles. Some wept as prominent Czechs spoke and sang prayers to the crowd.
The government planned to hold a meeting to decide on declaring an official day of mourning. Havel's remains were to be displayed on Wednesday and Thursday, the president's office said, and news agency CTK said the funeral could be on Friday.
"We will miss him," said 57-year-old Vlasta Lopatova. "People like him are hard to find, especially these days."
Born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor, Havel was denied a good education after the Communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth.
Despite having no higher degree, he began writing literary criticism in 1955. The first of his absurdist plays, whose characters often struggled to communicate in the empty language of communist-era rhetoric, debuted in 1963 in a more liberal era that was crushed by tanks in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
Havel's plays then disappeared in censors' vaults, and the author was forced into menial jobs such as rolling beer barrels.
STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL
That changed when Havel moved to the castle, a building he found so big that he and his staff used scooters to get around, an illustration of the euphoria of many newly free Czechs.
But he struggled to uphold his ideals.
Much of his two terms were cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who eventually replaced Havel as president in 2003.
When Klaus was prime minister, Havel launched a stinging attack against him, which many thought was a step too far. His popularity had declined steeply when he finally left office.
But human rights stayed high on his agenda, as did anxiety about the environment and the pursuit of moral values in the globalizing world, and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"He was a great and well-deserving man and will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace," said Polish dissident leader Lech Walesa, himself a Nobel laureate. "He certainly deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, but in this world not everything is just. He was above all a theoretician who fought with the word and pen."
Havel repeatedly irked Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, most recently this month. He also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on Havel's nomination.
"I spent a few years in prison, but perhaps I would be there three times as long if ... not for international solidarity," Havel said at a seminar on Myanmar in late 2007.
Havel returned to writing, and published a new play, "Leaving," which won rave reviews, premiered in 2008 and was later turned into a film.
When asked in an interview that year if he wanted to be remembered as a politician or playwright, he said: "I would like it to say that (he) was a playwright who acted as a citizen, and thanks to that he later spent a part of his life in a political position."
Havel was resuscitated twice, once after life-saving surgery to repair an intestine that ruptured during a holiday.
Those scares followed cancer surgery in 1996 to remove two small, malignant tumors and half his right lung. He also suffered from pneumonia and chronic bronchitis. He was last hospitalized for the disease in March and had been very frail, since then, using a wheelchair during the Dalai Lama's visit.
Giving condolences for the meek, well-loved man, who could sometimes be seen walking his dog near his former Prague Castle office, global leaders hailed his example and highlighted his role in reuniting Europe after the fall of communism.
"The man has died but the legacy of his poems, plays and above all his ideas and personal example will remain alive for many generations to come," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
"As he said himself in 1975 in an open letter to Gustav Husak, then president of the Communist regime: 'Life cannot be destroyed for good, neither can history be brought entirely to a halt.'"