Grief for champion of ‘Velvet Revolution’

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World leaders joined ordinary Czechs to pay emotional tribute to Vaclav Havel at his state funeral in Prague yesterday, ending a week of public grief over the death of the dissident playwright who led the 1989 revolution that toppled four decades of communist rule.

Church bells tolled while a siren marked the start of a minute of silence for the nation’s first democratically-elected president after the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution.”

Havel’s wife Dagmar, family members, friends and leaders from dozens of countries gathered at the towering, gothic St Vitus Cathedral which overlooks Prague. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were among some 1,000 mourners who bowed their heads in front of the coffin draped in the Czech colours.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who was Havel’s political archrival, and two friends – Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – paid tribute at the 10th century cathedral, while a message of thanks from Pope Benedict XVI for his “visionary leadership” and defence of human rights was also read.

“We will terribly miss him but we will never, ever forget him,” said Albright, who is of Czech origin, in Czech.

The city’s Archbishop Dominik Duka, who spent time in jail with Havel under Communism, led the funeral mass, and was joined by Vatican envoy Giovanni Coppa and bishop Vaclav Maly, Havel’s friend and fellow dissident. Poland’s former President Lech Walesa – who led the anti-communist Solidarity movement – also attended.

At the end of the ceremony, which was also played on giant screens so crowds who gathered outside could watch the proceedings, 21 cannon salvos were fired when the national anthem was played.

People applauded when Havel’s coffin was then carried by a military honour guard to Prague’s Strasnice crematorium for a private family service.

Havel, whose final term in office ended in 2003, died last Sunday.