Czechs mourn late President Vaclav Havel

December 19, 2011 - 8:10 AM
Czech Havel Obit

Mourners line up to pay respect at the coffin with the remains of former Czech president Vaclav Havel displayed at the Prague Crossroads centre in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

PRAGUE (AP) — Braving the freezing cold, Czechs waited patiently Monday to bid a personal farewell to former President Vaclav Havel, who led the peaceful revolution that toppled the communist regime in 1989.

At least a thousand mourners quietly gathered in a long line front of the Prague Crossroads at the city's Old Town, where the coffin with Havel's body went on display Monday at noon. Many were carrying flowers to honor Havel, who died Sunday at age 75.

Havel had turned a former church into a space where he organized international conferences and met leaders of other countries, dissidents and friends from all around the globe after his final term in office end in 2003.

"He was a hero for me since my childhood," said Zuzana Hronova, 32, who traveled to the capital from the city of Pardubice, 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Prague.

"One day I will share this experience with my children," she said, carrying one of her two daughters, 2-year-old Barbora, on her shoulders. "It would be great for them to have such a hero but I can't see anyone who could replace him now."

Havel's wife Dagmar, who was with her husband till the last, arrived dressed in black with dark sunglasses to place roses on the coffin.

On Wednesday, the remains will be moved to the Prague Castle, the presidency seat, to be on display there for another two days.

Czechs are also signing condolence books to pay tribute to Havel in Prague and many other places all across the country, as well in the Slovak capital Bratislava. Slovakia split from the Czech Republic in 1993.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Parliamentary speaker Miroslava Nemcova and Prague archbishop Domink Duka were the first to sign the books Monday at Prague Castle.

Klaus was meeting Havel's wife Monday to discuss the state funeral that is expected Friday.

Havel aide Sabina Tancevova said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed her wish to attend the funeral.

Immediately after the news about Havel's death spread Sunday, thousands of Czechs spontaneously gathered at many key historic places — such is the monument of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in downtown Prague — to lay flowers and light candles for Havel.

In Warsaw, Poles who waged similar struggles against the communists paid their respects to Havel at the Czech Embassy, lighting candles and placing flowers under a portrait of Havel hanging outside the building.

"I really respect him as a person. He was an intellectual and a man of great modesty," said Daria Czapula, 69, who lit a candle, struggling in the wind. "For us there is a little jealousy that we didn't have such a leader."

In Brussels, flags were lowered to half-mast and NATO as European Union institutions observed a minute of silence.

The Czech government meets later Monday to declare a period of official mourning.

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Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland contributed to this report.