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Czechs mourn Havel, hero of the Velvet Revolution

Vaclav Havel, the playwright turned dissident who led Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, died on Saturday at the age of 75 after years of battling ill health.

"Today Vaclav Havel has left us," said Sabina Tancevova, the former Czech president's secretary, in a brief statement.

Mr Havel's wife Dagmara was there when he died in his sleep at his weekend home in the north of the country.

Once a chain smoker, Mr Havel had suffered from respiratory and heart problems for years, but his health had declined recently to such an extent that public appearances became rare. He was last seen meeting the Dalai Lama earlier this month and appeared gaunt, frail and was in a wheelchair.

The Czech government will meet in an extraordinary session today, and is expected to declare an official state of mourning.

At Prague Castle the Czech flag flew at half mast in respect for a man revered as the father of the modern state, and an incorruptible force, always willing to defend human dignity.

At memorials to the 1989 revolution, well-wishers -- some in tears -- gathered to lay flowers and light candles.

A shy and softly spoken intellectual, Mr Havel became the figurehead of Czechoslovakia's revolution after years of battling the communist establishment as a dissident, during which he was jailed three times.

His uncompromising stance on human rights and the need for peace helped to characterise the bloodless Velvet Revolution that swept away the mighty edifice of communist rule in Czechoslovakia in just a few days in November 1989.


"Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt," said David Cameron, as tributes to the Czech statesman poured in from around the world. "Today his voice has fallen silent."

German chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would remember his "commitment to freedom and democracy as much as humanity", and that his leadership in 1989 had contributed to German reunification.

"We Germans especially have much to thank him for. We mourn the loss of a great European with you," she added.

Lech Walesa, who led the Poles in their similar struggle to shed the communist yoke, said: "He was a great man and we'll miss him. May he rest in peace."

Czech prime minister Petr Necas said: "I am extremely moved. He was 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." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent