Vaclav Havel: Thousands honour late Czech leader

There were emotional scenes as Vaclav Havel's coffin passed through Prague

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Thousands of people have accompanied the coffin of late Czech leader Vaclav Havel to Prague Castle where he lies in state.

The procession marked the start of three official days of mourning for Havel, who died on Sunday aged 75.

Many applauded as the hearse carrying the dissident playwright, who led the 1989 overthrow of communism, passed through Prague's historic centre.

A state funeral for the first Czech president is to take place on Friday.

Royal route

Havel's coffin was carried in a hearse, followed by members of his family and an estimated 10,000 people, many dressed in black.

AT THE SCENE

This is a country in mourning for the first post-communist president of the Czech Republic.

In the city's medieval centre, a crowd of mourners followed his coffin up the steep hill. Many more people stood by the side, watching the procession pass.

Many are still struggling to come to terms with Havel's death. Local people have told me that he was unique and that they felt he will always be their president.

He was, they say, the man who led the demonstrations in November 1989 and then led the country back to Europe.

Many towns and cities have already asked to name squares and streets after him.

"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," Jaroslav Mino, who came from eastern Slovakia for the event, told Agence France Presse.

The procession through the heart of the medieval Old Town following what is known as the Royal Route - used by kings and emperors for centuries.

Among the crowd was Havel's secretary during the 1990s, Martina Smith.

"It's a personal affair for me. I wanted to bid farewell and accompany him on this journey," she said, according to AFP.

At the barracks of the Castle Guard, the coffin was draped in the Czech flag and placed on a gun carriage drawn by six horses accompanied by soldiers in ceremonial uniform for the short journey to Prague Castle.

Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel in 1988
  • Born in 1936 to a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia
  • Considered "too bourgeois" by communist government, studied at night school
  • Writing banned and plays forced underground after the 1968 Prague Spring
  • In 1977, co-authored the Charter 77 movement for democratic change
  • Faced constant harassment and imprisonment as Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident
  • Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president in December 1989
  • Oversaw transition to democracy, and 1993 division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia
  • Left office in 2003 and continued writing, publishing a new play in 2008 and directing first film in 2011

The carriage is the same one that bore the coffin of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918.

It now lies inside the 15th-century Vladislav Hall from where current President Vaclav Klaus - who often clashed with Havel on the direction of the country after communism - described his predecessor as a "remarkable personality" and a "brave man of firm opinions" who is "difficult to classify".

"He became a symbol of changes under way and people projected their hopes in him," he said.

Friday's funeral, at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, will be the Czech Republic's first state funeral since independence and is expected to be attended by dignitaries from around the world.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband, Bill, visited a jazz club as president with the late Czech leader in 1994, is expected to attend, as is the Czech-born former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Heads of state or government from France, Germany, Israel and Austria and leaders from across eastern Europe, including Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania are also expected to attend.

Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 after the fall of communism. When Slovakia split in 1993, he remained Czech leader until 2003.

Having suffered from respiratory problems for many years, he died on Sunday at his country home in Hradecek, north-east of Prague.

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