Mourners follow Havel's last journey through Prague

PRAGUE Wed Dec 21, 2011 2:35pm GMT

1 of 2. The coffin of late former Czech President Vaclav Havel is transported on a gun carriage to Prague Castle December 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Vaclav Havel's actress wife led thousands of mourners through Prague's cobblestone streets Wednesday, following the playwright-president's body on its last public journey, to the castle where it will lie in state until a funeral Friday.

Dagmar Havlova was joined by leading figures from the Czech state and society as well as the former dissident's fellow citizens wishing to pay tribute to the man who died Sunday, 22 years after leading the "Velvet Revolution" that ended Communist rule over Czechoslovakia in December 1989.

Hundreds of soldiers lined the streets forming an honour guard and a military band played funeral dirges. Some people peered out of windows above the streets for a better view while many schoolchildren took a day off school with their teachers to witness the event.

"This was an honest man," said 67-year-old Jaroslava Leskakova as she marched in the sombre cortege behind the hearse through the sunlit cobbled streets of the old city toward the landmark Charles Bridge that leads to Prague Castle.

"He did not think of himself but did all he could for people to be happy," said Leskakova of Havel. He was repeatedly jailed by the Soviet-allied Communist authorities in the 1970s and 80s for his activism in the Charter 77 civil rights movement and then led the nation as president from 1989 to 2003.

Moving from an arts centre Havel helped found, the coffin, covered in the Czech flag, began its journey to the castle he found himself suddenly thrust into as head of state. The journey was symbolic of the transformation in Havel's own life, from censored playwright to a statesman rebuilding eastern Europe.

Some watched the procession on a giant screen in the square in front of the castle while others jostled for position closer to the street for a better view of the carriage drawn by six black horses. Most stood in silence as they waited for Havel's body to pass by.

The final transfer into the castle, where Friday's funeral mass will be held in the presence of dignitaries from around the world, was made on the gun carriage last used for the funeral in 1937 of national hero Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who led Czechoslovakia to independence from the Austrian empire in 1918.

A light rain began falling as the coffin entered the castle where the crowd lining the street began quietly applauding and shaking their keys -- a spontaneous tribute recollecting the protests people made during the revolution to signal the final bell on the communist regime.

"I wish that all who are not indifferent to the future of our country, pursue their opinions with the same courage and conviction as Vaclav Havel did," said President Vaclav Klaus, who often clashed with Havel over the country's direction after communism.

Among those expected at a funeral which will conclude three days of national mourning are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill, who as president famously played the saxophone on a trip to a Prague nightclub with Havel in 1994.

Poland's dissident-turned-president Lech Walesa will be among those attending from a generation who can look back on a moment in history when peaceful protests - and Moscow's loss of will to crush them - ended the Cold War division of the Europe.

Until the end, Havel had continued to support democratic activists around the world. In his last public statement, he had denounced this month's parliamentary election in Russia as rigged and urged Vladimir Putin's opponents to form a shadow government and stand up to "bullying" by the authorities.

"He will always be the symbol for the revolution and I will always value him as a person," said Jan Faltys, a 23-year-old student born a year before the 1989 revolution that thrust Havel to a global stage.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka and Michael Kahn; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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