Czechs mourn "Velvet Revolution" leader Havel

PRAGUE Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:43pm EST

1 of 15. A woman holds flowers as she arrives to pay her respects to late former Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague Crossroads Centre in Prague December 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David W Cerny

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs streamed in their thousands through Prague Castle and the mediaeval city centre on Monday to write condolences and bid farewell to Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-president whose "Velvet Revolution" toppled Communist rule.

A day after Havel's death on Sunday at 75 thousands of mourners filed past his closed coffin at the cultural centre he founded in a former church in Prague, just around the corner from the theatre where he made his literary debut.

Prime Minister Petr Necas announced a three-day period of national mourning from Wednesday until Friday, which will culminate in a funeral at Prague Castle's St Vitus cathedral and a nationwide moment of silence on Friday at noon.

Leaders and elder statesmen from across Europe and the world are expected to attend Havel's funeral. Neighboring Slovakia, which split from a common state with Czechs in 1993, will hold a day of national mourning on Friday.

"He accomplished what we did not believe was possible: He beat communism, and what is more, without a single shot, without a drop of blood spilled. He deserves honor," said Lumir Nemec, a 72-year-old pensioner waiting in a line stretching hundreds of meters to pay respects to the former president.

Lines also formed to sign condolence books at Prague Castle, the seat of power which Havel entered as president in 1989, just weeks after the bloodless revolt in Czechoslovakia and fall of the Berlin Wall announced the end of Europe's Cold War divide.

Other books were open in public buildings in the Czech Republic, as well as in Slovakia.

From Wednesday Havel's body will lie in the castle - a place he never fully grew accustomed to, and whose mediaeval austerity he sought to enliven while head of state by inviting performers and fellow artists including, memorably, the Rolling Stones.

In Brussels and elsewhere, meetings of the European Union began with silent tributes.

An aide to Havel said those expected to attend the funeral would include U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband Bill, as president, famously joined Havel at a Prague jazz club to play saxophone during an official visit in 1994.

"TRUTH AND LOVE"

Havel died on Sunday at his country home in Hradecek, northeast of Prague, after a long respiratory illness. He had survived operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in the late 1990s that left him frail for more than a decade.

In November 1989, just six months after completing a jail sentence, Havel led hundreds of thousands of protesters through Prague's cobbled streets in a peaceful uprising that ended four decades of Soviet-backed rule. Within weeks he was president.

Havel, whose political works for the theatre like "The Memorandum" and "The Conspirators" remain in performance around the world, became the face of a small nation and a symbol for many millions more in eastern Europe who demanded democracy.

He was president of Czechoslovakia from December 29, 1989 until 1992, and then of the Czech Republic from 1993 until he retired in 2003, when Czechs elected free-market economist Vaclav Klaus, with whom Havel had often clashed.

"He showed there were values worth fighting for, he showed that truth and love can be part of politics," said Eva Tuskova, a 26-year-old student waiting to enter the church in the heart of Prague's Old Town housing Havel's coffin.

Havel's motto, "Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred," defined the revolution for many of the 10 million Czechs. But as the post-Communist years wore on, many quoted his words with sarcasm as enthusiasm for new freedoms collided with disillusion at state spending cuts and political corruption.

Havel himself lost some of his personal allure in the later years of his time at the Castle when, portraying himself as a philosopher-president, he struggled to uphold morality in a tumultuous era of economic change and murky business deals.

(Reporting by Robert Mueller; Writing by Michael Kahn; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Peter Graff)

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