Europe

Vaclav Havel: Czechs pay final respects to late leader

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Media captionMourners have been paying their respects in Prague

Mourners have paid final respects to the Czech Republic's first President, Vaclav Havel, signing condolence books and laying roses on his coffin.

A state funeral is expected to be held on Friday for the former dissident playwright, who died on Sunday morning aged 75.

Queues formed outside Prague Castle on Monday and mourners filed past his closed coffin in a cultural centre.

Condolence books were also opened in public buildings in Slovakia.

Slovak PM Iveta Radicova paid tribute to the late leader's charm and said they had been together at an award ceremony in Prague a few days before.

Image caption Mr Havel's widow Dagmar laid roses on his coffin

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 at his country home in Hradecek, north-east of Prague, where he was being looked after by his wife Dagmar Havlova.

He had suffered "circulatory failure, the result of all health problems he had experienced, starting with pneumonia he had suffered from in prison", his doctor Tomas Bouzek told Czech media.

Havel had part of a lung removed during surgery for cancer in the 1990s and had moved to his country home for health reasons in the summer, returning briefly to the capital to meet Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama earlier this month.

One report said the former dissident had died after making plans with his wife for a quiet Christmas party. He had gone back to sleep and did not wake up again.

A week of mourning is being held in the Czech Republic and hundreds of candles were lit on Sunday night in Wencelas Square - once the focal point of the "Velvet Revolution" that overthrew the country's communist regime.

A former church turned by Havel into a cultural and spiritual centre, The Prague Crossroads, was chosen to host his coffin until Wednesday, when his body will be taken to Prague Castle.

BBC Prague correspondent Rob Cameron said a long queue of people had formed outside the church to pay their respects, standing patiently in the December chill.

The stage was bare, except for a simple, rather austere coffin surrounded by four candles and a black and white portrait of the man many Czechs still refer to as their president, our correspondent says.

Among the many hundreds of mourners was his widow, who laid roses on his coffin. She was accompanied by her daughter, Nina, and architect Borek Sipek who comforted Mrs Havlova as the coffin was brought in by pallbearers.

First to sign the books of condolence at the castle were Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the speaker of parliament and the archbishop of Prague.

Mr Klaus is due to meet Prime Minister Petr Necas and other officials to discuss preparations for the funeral.

They will also consult the late leader's widow to finalise details of the Czech Republic's first ever state funeral since independence. It is likely to take place on Friday at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague and will attract dignitaries from around the world.

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

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