Czechs bid farewell to Havel in national mourning

21st December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of silent mourners accompanied the body of Vaclav Havel through central Prague Wednesday as the Czech Republic began three days of national mourning for the icon of the Velvet Revolution.

In the early morning chill, some 10,000 mourners mostly in black, some carrying Czech or Slovak flags, joined a solemn procession taking the former president's coffin from a church through narrow cobbled streets to Prague Castle, the seat of Czech presidents.

Havel died on Sunday aged 75 and a number of foreign leaders will be attending his state funeral on Friday.

The dissident playwright led the nation through the bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled Soviet-backed communism in then Czechoslovakia.

He went on to serve as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and subsequently the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003 when the former Czechoslovak federation split peacefully into two states.

After arriving at Prague Castle, the coffin was placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage also used for the funeral of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, in 1937.

Six horses took the coffin draped in the red, blue and white Czech flag to the castle's vast, vaulted-ceiling Vladislav Hall, where it will lie in state for two days.

"Vaclav Havel's life mirrors a large section of the 20th century: the war, the seizing of power by the communists, the thaw of the 1960s, the fall of communism, the building of the new democracy, the partition of the nation and its integration into European and global bodies," President Vaclav Klaus said at a brief ceremony.

"Mr Havel was a model of a man who longs to live in truth and in harmony with his inner conscience, and who is not afraid to suffer for that," said Jaroslav Mino who had travelled some 650 kilometres (400 miles) to pay his respects.

"It's time to remember Havel and some of his moral appeals which are absent from today's politics -- it's all about business and money, and I think they should start with the people themselves instead," said Mino who was also carrying a Slovak flag.

Slovakia has declared Friday a day of national mourning.

Flags flew at half mast across the Czech Republic on the first day of national mourning, as theatres, cinemas and music clubs cancelled performances.

Wednesday's procession started at the Prague Crossroads, a spiritual centre created by Havel in a disused church, where his coffin had been viewed by the public for the past two days.

Among the crowds, Vladimir Dlouhy, minister of trade and industry under Havel's presidency, remembered his former boss.

"Some loved him and some disagreed with him, but he fundamentally changed our lives as the leader of the Velvet Revolution," Dlouhy said.

More than 10,000 people signed a petition Wednesday for Prague's airport to be named after Havel, the organisers said.

On Friday, the coffin will be taken to St Vitus Cathedral for a memorial service and a requiem mass.

Friday's event will be attended by scores of leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her husband, former US president Bill Clinton.

Among dignitaries who have confirmed their presence at the funeral are the presidents of Germany, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Georgia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Estonia.

After the service, Havel's body will be cremated in accordance with his family's wishes.

On Friday, a concert was due to be held in Havel's memory at the Lucerna palace, a sprawling edifice built by Havel's grandfather -- a construction magnate -- at the turn of the last century.

© 2011 AFP

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