Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-politician who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, has died at age 75.

Havel, a former chain-smoker who suffered breathing difficulties, died on Sunday morning at his weekend house in the northern Czech Republic.

As a dissident playwright, Havel wove theatre into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War.

Havel was Czechoslovakia'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 its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

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Havel's friend and translator, Paul Wilson

Even out of office, the diminutive Czech remained a world figure. He was part of the "new Europe" - in the coinage of then-US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - of ex-communist countries that stood up for the US when the democracies of "old Europe" opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Havel left office in 2003, 10 years after Czechoslovakia broke up and just months before both nations joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.

Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defending the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar.

Among his many honours were Sweden's prestigious Olof Palme Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award, bestowed on him by President George W. Bush for being "one of liberty's great heroes".

An avowed peacenik whose heroes included rockers such as Frank Zappa, he never quite shed his flower-child past and often signed his name with a small heart as a flourish.

Early in 2008, Havel returned to his first love: the stage.

He published a new play, "Leaving", about the struggles of a leader on his way out of office, and the work gained critical acclaim.

Source: Agencies