Thousands Mourn Former Czech President Havel

Posted December 19th, 2011 at 11:45 am (UTC-5)
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Thousands of Czech mourners have gathered to remember former president Vaclav Havel, who died in his sleep of respiratory problems Sunday at the age of 75.

Mourners stood in a long line Monday at a church in Prague, and lit candles in cities and towns across the country and in Slovakia for the man who led the so-called Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist government in 1989.

Mr. Havel, a dissident playwright, was his country's first democratically elected president. On taking office, he oversaw Czechoslovakia's transition to a free-market economy and democracy, as well as its peaceful 1993 division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Mr. Havel's coffin will be on display in the Prague church before being moved Wednesday to lie in state at Prague Castle. The Czech Cabinet is scheduled to be meet later in the day to plan a state funeral that is expected to be held Friday.

Vaclav Havel was the president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992, and the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Dignitaries from around the world are expected to attend the funeral, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed Mr. Havel as “a great European” who fought for freedom on the continent, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said all of Europe owes the former president a “profound debt” for bringing freedom and democracy to the continent.

Former Polish president Lech Walesa, who spurred the fall of communism in his homeland, said Vaclav Havel's voice will “be greatly missed” in Europe, “above all now, when it is experiencing a great crisis.”

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, in a message posted on Twitter, called the Czech icon “a voice for freedom” and “one of the greatest Europeans of our age.”