Vaclav Havel's illness worsens

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THE CONDITION of the Czech President, Vaclav Havel, appeared to be deteriorating yesterday as he developed an irregular heartbeat and pneumonia.

Doctors were issuing regular bulletins on the health of the former dissident playwright turned politician as he hovered in and out of consciousness.

"I feared for him all night and this morning too, but now it seems to me he's doing better," said his wife, Dagmar, after she left his bedside at Prague's military hospital.

President Havel, who for many is a living symbol of the moral victory won in Eastern Europe by the collapse of Communism in 1989, has been ill since the winter of 1996. Formerly a chain smoker, he has been hospitalised five times since December 1996 when doctors removed a third of his lung and a tumour.

Mr Havel has been in intensive care since he had surgery on 26 July, after being operated on for intestinal problems, when his lungs collapsed and doctors put him on a respirator.

Last month, he appointed the first left-wing government in the Czech Republic since the Communists were ousted in the Velvet Revolution during the winter of 1989.

Power is now divided between the Social Democrats, led by the Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, and his predecessor, Vaclav Klaus, of the centre- right Civic Democratic Party.

Although Mr Zeman and Mr Klaus are divided by ideology, their common hunger for power has brought them together in a marriage of convenience, to the disgust of many voters who are disillusioned with the widespread corruption that was allowed to flourish under the government of MrKlaus, an arch-privatiser.

Both Mr Klaus and Mr Zeman are keen to curtail the power of the presidential office, but have been restrained by the moral stature that Mr Havel enjoys within the Czech Republic and the international respect he commands.