PRAGUE — Former Czech president and hero of the Velvet Revolution Vaclav Havel, who steered his country to independence from Soviet rule in 1989, died on Sunday at the age of 75.
Havel died in his sleep at dawn in his weekend house in the village of Hradecek, about 140 kilometres (87 miles) northeast of Prague, after a lengthy illness, his secretary Sabina Tancevova said.
“In his last moment, his wife Dagmar was with him, together with one of the nuns who have been taking care of him in recent months,” Tancevova said.
Tributes poured in from across Europe for the one-time dissident who was hailed as a “great European” and the “soul of the Czech revolution” that toppled communism in his country.
Havel, president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and of the successor Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003, had long battled poor health, partly caused by the five years he spent in communist jails.
The playwright and former dissident had grappled with breathing problems since he had part of his lung removed in 1996 to stop cancer.
Havel’s successor Vaclav Klaus said the news of Havel’s death was “something we didn’t dare to fathom.”
“He became a symbol of the modern Czech state… his personality, name and work substantially helped the Czech Republic become swiftly a part of the community of free and democratic countries,” he added.
Under Havel’s presidency, the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and later became a member of the European Union in 2004.
Klaus said he had asked Prime Minister Petr Necas and the speakers of both houses of parliament to meet at Prague Castle on Sunday to “prepare further necessary steps together.”
The centre-right cabinet said it would hold an extraordinary session on Monday to decide on national mourning for Havel.
Poland’s former president Lech Walesa, who like Havel went from anti-communist dissident to become head of state after the 1989 peaceful collapse of communism, paid tribute to Havel.
“He was a great campaigner in the struggle for freedom, for democracy and liberation from the yoke of communism,” Walesa said. “His voice will be greatly missed in Europe above all now when it is experiencing a great crisis.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Havel was “the soul of the Czech revolution” while Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt described him as “one of the greatest Europeans of our age”.
Havel’s health woes stemmed from a poorly treated case of pneumonia he suffered while he was jailed by the communist regime in the 1980s for dissident activity.
Part of his right lung was removed in December 1996 after cancer was detected.
In 1998, Havel underwent acute surgery on a perforated bowel during a holiday in Austria.
The former chain smoker had also suffered repeated lung and heart problems and underwent surgery for a pulmonary inflammation in 2009.
Earlier this year, Havel was taken to hospital with acute bronchitis, from which he never seemed to fully recover.
The illness also caused “a loss of balance, memory loss and weight loss,” Havel said in an interview.
This summer, Havel retreated to his house in the countryside to convalesce and last returned to Prague to meet Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on December 10.
Havel was born in Prague on October 5, 1936 into a wealthy family which lost its assets as the communists took power in 1948.
He established himself as a leading figure on the scene of the Czechoslovak theatre of the absurd in the 1960s, before being banned from theatres after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
He was responsible for drawing up Charter 77, a 1977 manifesto challenging the communists to live up to their international promises to respect human rights, and he kept fighting the regime which earned him five years in prison.
As communism was toppled in the peaceful Velvet Revolution, Havel was the first-choice man to take the top job in Czechoslovakia, which then split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
Havel married actress Dagmar Veskrnova, 20 years his junior, in 1997, following the death of his first wife Olga a year earlier. He had no children.