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Czechs mourn former president; Havel helped end communism

Czechs and world leaders paid emotional tribute to Vaclav Havel on Friday at a pomp-filled funeral ceremony, ending a week of public grief and nostalgia over the death of the dissident playwright who led the 1989 revolution that toppled four decades of communist rule.

Bells tolled from churches while a wailing siren brought the country to a standstill in 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 Friday at the towering, gothic St. Vitus Cathedral which overlooks Prague. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron were among some 1,000 mourners who bowed their heads in front of the coffin draped in the Czech colors.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who was Havel's political archrival, and two friends -- Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- paid tribute to Havel at the cathedral, which dates to the 10th century and has not witnessed a state funeral since 1875.

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

In a message read at the funeral by the Vatican's former diplomatic representative in Prague, Pope Benedict XVI praised Havel.

"Remembering how courageously Mr. Havel defended human rights at a time when these were systematically denied to the people of your country, and paying tribute to his visionary leadership in forging a new democratic polity after the fall of the previous regime, I give thanks to God for the freedom that the people of the Czech Republic now enjoy," he said.

Havel, 75, whose final term in office ended in 2003, died Sunday morning in his sleep at his weekend home in the country's north.

Czechs packed a nearby courtyard at Prague Castle and an adjacent square to watch the funeral ceremony on giant screens.

"He was our star. He gave us democracy," said Iva Buckova, 51, who had traveled from the western city of Plzen. "He led us through revolution. We came to see him for the last time."

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