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Tributes to Velvet Revolution hero Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who turned to politics to help peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia, has died at the age of 75.

The Cold War hero died at his weekend house in the northern Czech Republic yesterday.

Mr Havel was his country's first democratically elected president after the non-violent Velvet Revolution that ended four decades of repression by a regime he ridiculed as "Absurdistan".

As president he oversaw the country's bumpy transition to democracy and a free-market economy, as well as its peaceful 1993 break-up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

A former chain smoker, Mr Havel had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist jails. He was taken to hospital in Prague on January 12, 2009 with an unspecified inflammation, and had developed breathing difficulties after undergoing minor throat surgery.

The death drew emotional responses from across Europe and the globe.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Havel devoted his life to the cause of human freedom. For years communism tried to crush him and to extinguish his voice. But Havel, the playwright and the dissident, could not be silenced. No-one of my generation will ever forget those powerful scenes from Wenceslas Square two decades ago.

"Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny. And he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent.

"Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt. Today his voice has fallen silent. But his example and the cause to which he devoted his life will live on."

Czech prime minister Petr Necas called him "the symbol of 1989" and said he "did a tremendous job for this country".

In neighbouring Poland the founder of the anti-communist Solidarity movement and former president Lech Walesa called Mr Havel "a great fighter for the freedom of nations".

"It is a great pity and a great loss. His outstanding voice of wisdom will be missed in Europe," said Mr Walesa, the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

In Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, prime minister Iveta Radicova said it was Mr Havel who "opened the gates to the world after 1989".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and went into politics as communism crumbled, said she learned "with great dismay" of Mr Havel's death.

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