Czech, foreign leaders mourn Vaclav Havel

December 18, 2011
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A black and Czech national flag are being hoist at the Prague Castle to commemorate the death of former Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011. Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died Sunday Dec. 18, 2011 in Prague. He was 75. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

PRAGUE (AP) — Czech leaders and foreign politicians paid tribute Sunday to Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution that peacefully toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia.

Vaclav Klaus, Havel's political archrival who replaced him as president in 2003, called Havel "the symbol of the new era of the Czech state."

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas called him "the symbol of 1989" and said Havel "did a tremendous job for this country."

In neighboring 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.

Havel died Sunday at age 75. The Czech government meets Monday to declare a period of official mourning. Klaus said condolence books will be available at the Prague castle, the presidency seat, starting Monday for people to sign.

In Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, prime Minister Iveta Radicova said it was Havel who "opened the gates to the world after 1989."

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."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that Havel was "one of the greatest Europeans of our age."

He added on his blog that Havel was "maybe the strongest voice from behind the iron curtain that no longer accepted a Europe divided between freedom and repression."

In Russia, Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteral opposition figure and leader of the Yabloko party, told the Itar-TASS news agency that Havel "was a man of integrity and dignity who has never been afraid of anyone".

"He devoted his life to freeing his people from a totalitarian regime," Yavlinsky said