World leaders pay their last respects to Vaclav Havel
Published 23/12/2011 | 14:32
A GRIEVING Czech nation is saying a final farewell to Vaclav Havel as the playwright, dissident and former president receives a state funeral.
At noon on Friday church bells and sirens echoed across the country as people paused to remember a man who defined his nation's peaceful liberation from communist rule.
Factories halted production, Christmas shoppers stood silent and motionless, and on town squares many people marked the end of the moment's reflection by singing the Czech national anthem.
In Prague's St Vitus Cathedral around 42 heads of state and dignitaries attended a requiem mass for Havel.
The mourners included UK premier David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and her husband and former president Bill.
"Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt," Mr Cameron said before leaving London. "Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny ... and he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent."
Havel died in his sleep aged 75 on Sunday from a respiratory illness.
Thousands of Czechs filed past his body as it lay first in a cultural centre in Prague and then in state at St Vitus Cathedral. Many more placed flowers and lit candles at memorials to the 1989 Velvet Revolution across the country.
Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka, who led the funeral mass, recalled the time he and Havel spent in jail together during the communist days.
"I am grateful for those days in prison then, and for our freedom now,"
he said in reference to his old friend.
Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president who once had a tetchy relationship with his predecessor, will read a eulogy: as will Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born former US secretary of state.
Later today Havel's body will be taken to Prague's Strasnice crematorium for a private civil ceremony. His ashes will be interned besides those of his first wife Olga, who died in 1996, in a cemetery in the capital's Vinohrady district.
Neighbouring Slovakia is also observing a day of national mourning to mark Havel's passing while in Poland, a country which shared a common bond with Havel in his battle against authoritarian rule, the funeral was broadcast live on national television.