Top Czech politicians attend funeral of controversial anti-communist fighter Milan Paumer

PRAGUE (AP) — Top Czech politicians on Wednesday attended the funeral of controversial anti-communist fighter Milan Paumer despite strong criticism from the Communist Party, which brands him a murderer.

Prime Minister Petr Necas, Foreign Minister Karel Scharzenberg and Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra, together with other government members and the speakers of both houses, attended Paumer's funeral in the town of Podebrady, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Prague.

Paumer died July 22 in Prague at age 79.

In a brief speech to hundreds at a farewell ceremony, Necas said Paumer was a brave man who was fighting to "free our country from a totalitarian dictatorship."

The Czechs are divided over Paumer. While some consider him an anti-communist hero, for others he is a murderer.

The former Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communists from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Paumer and brothers Ctirad and Josef Masin were part of a resistance cell that was active for several years, focusing on acts of sabotage aimed at harming the communist regime. They killed two policemen while trying to capture arms in a police station, and a cashier during a robbery to raise funds for their operations.

In 1953 they fled to the West, killing three police officers in East Germany during the epic escape as tens of thousands of police searched for them. Two other members of the cell were captured, sentenced to death and executed.

The three later settled in the United States and served in the U.S. army.

Communist Party spokeswoman Vera Karasova said Necas' attendance at the funeral was "weird and insensitive."

"I'd like to know what the relatives of those they murdered have to say about that," she said.

Czech media reported that dozens of posters were put up in Podebrady, with Paumer's photograph and the words "A murderer remains a murderer."

Paumer returned to his homeland in 2001, but the Masin brothers have refused to come home and did not attend his funeral. They claim the country is not free yet because the Communists still have lawmakers in Parliament.

Although Parliament's upper house, the Senate, repeatedly proposed that Paumer be awarded a state decoration for his fight against communism, he never received one.

Following the funeral, Necas said his government will propose legislation to honor those who were fighting against communism.