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Czechs mourn late President Vaclav Havel

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    A mourner pays respect by coffin with remains of former Czech president Vaclav Havel displayed at the Prague Crossroads centre in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Dec. 19, 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 >> Braving the freezing cold, thousands of Czechs bid a personal farewell Monday to former President Vaclav Havel, who led the peaceful revolution that toppled the communist regime in 1989.

The mourners waited patiently in a long line in front of the Prague Crossroads at the city’s Old Town, where the coffin with Havel’s body went on display Monday. Many were carrying flowers to honor Havel, who died Sunday at age 75.

The government announced that a three-day official mourning period will start Wednesday and said it will hold a state funeral, including a Mass, on Friday at the country’s biggest and most famous church, St. Vitus Cathedral.

A private funeral for family members will follow at a crematory, Prague archbishop Dominik Duka said.

Prime Minister Petr Necas urged Czech citizens to observe a minute of silence at Friday noon and his government proposed a special law recognizing Havel’s "contribution to freedom and democracy."

Havel had turned a former church into a space where he organized international conferences and met leaders of other countries, dissidents and friends from all around the globe after his final term in office end in 2003.

"He was a hero for me since my childhood," said Zuzana Hronova, 32, who traveled to the capital from the city of Pardubice, 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Prague.

"One day I will share this experience with my children," she said, carrying one of her two daughters, 2-year-old Barbora, on her shoulders. "It would be great for them to have such a hero but I can’t see anyone who could replace him now."

Havel’s wife Dagmar, who was with her husband till the last, arrived dressed in black with dark sunglasses to place roses on the coffin.

On Wednesday, the remains will be moved to the Prague Castle, the presidency seat, to be on display there for another two days.

Czechs were also signing condolence books to pay tribute to Havel in Prague and many other places all across the country, as well as in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, declared an official day of mourning on Friday.

Havel aide Sabina Tancevova said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed her wish to attend the funeral.

Immediately after the news about Havel’s death spread Sunday, thousands of Czechs spontaneously gathered at many key historic places — such is the monument of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in downtown Prague — to lay flowers and light candles for him.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Havel "the moral voice of his country and his era. His humanity, humility and decency were an example for us all."

In Warsaw, Poles who waged similar struggles against their own communist regime paid their respects to Havel at the Czech Embassy, lighting candles and placing flowers under a portrait of him hanging outside the building.

"I really respect him as a person. He was an intellectual and a man of great modesty," said Daria Czapula, 69, who lit a candle, struggling in the wind. "For us there is a little jealousy that we didn’t have such a leader."

In Brussels, flags were lowered to half-staff as NATO and other European Union institutions observed a minute of silence.


Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland and Anita Snow in New York City contributed to this report.

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