World leaders gather as Vaclav Havel exits stage left

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All the world became a stage yesterday for the final bow of Vaclav Havel, the playwright, turned prisoner, turned president.

Dozens of leaders from all over the world were in Prague to attend the state funeral of the dissident writer, who helped to lead Czechozlovakia through the "velvet revolution" to freedom in 1989.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, her husband, the former president Bill Clinton, President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chancellor Angela Merkel joined Havel's wife Dagmar among the 1,000 mourners at St Vitus Cathedral. Thousands of Czechs lined the streets to applaud when Mr Havel's coffin was carried by a military honour guard to Strasnice crematorium for a family funeral. The ashes of the first President of post-Communist Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic, were buried alongside his first wife, Olga, who died in 1996.

"Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt," Mr Cameron said. "Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny... and he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent."

Chancellor Merkel said: "We Germans also have much to thank him for. Together with you, we mourn the loss of a great European." There also messages from Pope Benedict XVI and the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Mr Havel, president of the Czech Republic until 2003, had been jailed by the former Communist regime for his satirical plays and other writings. Within a few months in 1989, he was catapulted from dissident to leader of a peaceful revolution and president of Czechoslovakia.

He died in his sleep on Sunday at his weekend home in the north of the country. He was 75.

Tens of thousands of Czechs silently lined the streets of the capital when his body was carried to Prague Castle in a military procession on Wednesday. Heaps of flowers and forests of candles have appeared in sites connected with the "velvet revolution", such as Wenceslas Square where Havel addressed a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people in 1989.

"He was our star, he gave us democracy," Iva Buckova, 51, who had travelled from the Plzen, in the west of the country, told the Associated Press. "He led us through revolution. We came to see him for the last time."

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