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World leaders honour former Czech president Havel

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-12-23

World leaders gathered in Prague on Friday for the funeral of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, who died last Sunday at the age of 75. Havel was an architect of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended Soviet rule of what was then Czechoslovakia.

AFP - Bells tolled and sirens wailed on Friday for Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel as world leaders and ordinary Czechs bade an emotional goodbye to the dissident playwright turned president.

World figures including Bill and Hillary Clinton and former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright bowed their heads for a minute's silence that marked the start of the funeral service for Havel in Prague's St Vitus Cathedral.

Across the country, the nation came to a standstill in memory of Havel who in 1989 steered his compatriots through the bloodless revolution that toppled Soviet-backed communism in the then-Czechoslovakia.

Crowds of people, many wearing ribbons in the Czech national colours of red, white and blue crossed by a tiny black sash of mourning, gathered in the historic centre of Prague to watch the requiem mass on large screens set up close to the cathedral.

Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to the president, who died on Sunday aged 75, recalling "how courageously Mr Havel defended human rights at a time when these were systematically denied to the people of your country."

"I cordially impart my apostolic blessing to all who mourn in the hope of resurrection to new life," the pope said in a letter read at the funeral by Cardinal Giovanni Coppa.

Describing Havel as a "giant", French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Prague he "made eastern Europe swing towards democracy" and had "always stood up for the reunification of the continent".

The mass was celebrated by Prague archbishop Dominik Duka, who recalled how he played chess with Havel in a communist prison.

"I'm grateful to you for those moments in prison back then, and for my freedom here and now," Duka said.

Czech-born Albright said in a speech she had been honoured by the friendship of Havel, who "valued freedom not as a goal on its own, but as a means of finally achieving the victory of truth."

"We will miss him terribly, but we will never, never forget him," added Albright.

People in the streets applauded her words, then doffed their hats as the Czech anthem played in the cathedral to the sound of a 21-gun salute fired from a hill opposite Prague Castle.

"It's like the loss of someone very close," said Alena Bartonova, who drove to Prague with her husband and six-year-old son from Karlovy Vary, 120 kilometres (75 miles) west of the capital, bringing a large bouquet of red flowers to the cathedral.

Founded by Czech king Charles IV in 1344, St Vitus Cathedral was the place where a Te Deum -- an early Christian hymn of praise -- was sung in Havel's honour after his election in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.

Havel's family and friends bade farewell at a private ceremony in a Prague crematorium later on Friday.

Havel's office said the former president's ashes would be entombed after Christmas, possibly on December 27, at a family crypt in a Prague cemetery, where people already lit candles on Friday.

After the ceremonies, people filled Prague's Lucerna Palace -- a sprawling edifice built at the turn of the last century by Havel's grandfather, a construction magnate -- for a rock concert dedicated to Havel, a keen fan of the music.

Tens of thousands paid their respects from Monday through Thursday at a former church in central Prague and then in the grand Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, with doors being open to mourners well into the night every day.

The playwright was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and subsequently the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003 after the federation split.

Neighbouring Slovakia, which broke away from the Czech Republic in a peaceful split in 1993, also declared Friday a day of national mourning, with flags flying at half mast.

Meanwhile, support for renaming Prague airport Vaclav Havel Airport grew across the Czech Republic, while the northern Polish town of Gdansk, birthplace of the anti-communist Solidarity movement, said it would name an avenue after Havel.

Date created : 2011-12-23

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