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Today's Top News
Václav Havel, Former Czech president, Dies Aged 75
Dissident playwright who led velvet revolution and became first post-communist Czechoslovakian president dies
Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who led the Czechoslovakian "velvet revolution" and was one of the fathers of the east European pro-democracy movement that led to the fall of the Berlin wall, has died aged 75.
Reports quoted his assistant, Sabina Tančevová, as saying Havel died at his weekend house on Sunday morning, and the news was announced on Czech television during an interview with the current prime minister, Petr Necas.
Necas called Havel "the symbol of 1989" and said he did "a tremendous job for this country".
Havel's state funeral is likely to draw a crowd of leaders, artists and intellectuals from around the world. Havel was a renowned playwright and essayist who, after the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968, was drawn increasingly into the political struggle against the Czechoslovakian communist dictatorship, which he called Absurdistan. His involvement in the Charter 77 movement for freedom of speech won him admiration around the world.
His commitment to non-violent resistance helped ensure the velvet revolution was bloodless. It also help ensured that the "velvet divorce" three years later, when the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, was equally peaceful.
Havel opposed the split and stepped down from his position as president in 1992, rather than oversee the process. However, he stood for the presidency of the Czech Republic early the following year and won. It was a non-executive position but Havel brought to it both moral authority and prestige on the world stage. He stayed in the position, despite bouts of ill health including lung cancer, until 2003.
His role in the east European revolutions of 1989 was second only to Lech Walesa's in Poland. As the twin inspirations of the pro-democracy movement, they were strikingly contrasting figures: Walesa a flamboyant, brash, working-class union agitator; Havel a soft-spoken intellectual from a well-to-do family, who was a reluctant politician.
He was one of a generation who came to political consciousness in the 1960s. Rock stars such as Frank Zappa were among his heroes and late in life he continued to sign his name with a small heart-shaped flourish.
His motto was: "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate."
World leaders have paid tribute to Havel. British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Havel devoted his life to the cause of human freedom. For years, communism tried to crush him, and to extinguish his voice. But Havel, the playwright and the dissident, could not be silenced.
"No one of my generation will ever forget those powerful scenes from Wenceslas Square two decades ago. Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny. And he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent.
"Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt. Today his voice has fallen silent. But his example and the cause to which he devoted his life will live on."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and went into politics as communism crumbled, said she learned "with great dismay" of Havel's death.
"His dedication to freedom and democracy is as unforgotten as his great humanity," Merkel wrote in a message to Klaus. "We Germans also have much to thank him for. Together with you, we mourn the loss of a great European."
The president of the European parliament Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister and activist in Solidarity, wrote on Twitter: "Vaclav Havel is the figure that represents the Velvet Revolution and the reunification of Europe. He will be sorely missed."
Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party in Britain, said: "Vaclav Havel was an inspirational figure across generations, both in his native Czech Republic and internationally.
"He fought courageously for freedom from fear and showed the power of people and politics to change the world."
Vaclav Klaus, Havel's political arch-rival who replaced him as president in 2003, called Havel "the symbol of the new era of the Czech state".
Foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg added that Havel "returned dignity to the Czech nation."
In neighbouring Poland, the founder of the anti-communist Solidarity movement and former president Lech Walesa called Havel "a great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy".
"It is a great pity and a great loss. His outstanding voice of wisdom will be missed in Europe," said Walesa, the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.