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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Pay Tribute to Bykov

MINSK, Belarus -- Tens of thousands of mourners filed through Minsk on Wednesday to honor Vasil Bykov, Belarus' best-loved writer and a critic of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Bykov, one of Soviet literature's great figures, died of cancer Sunday, age 79. He won acclaim for his novels and stories about ordinary soldiers in World War II, but both Communist authorities and Lukashenko criticized his work.

His last four years were spent in exile.

Many following Bykov's coffin down Prospekt Skoriny, the capital's main street, carried Belarus' banned white-and-red nationalist flag adorned with black ribbons in the largest such public gathering in several years.

Police estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 people attended. Mourners took five hours to file past Bykov's casket in a hall bedecked with red and white flowers.

Officials attempted at one point to remove the banned nationalist flag from the coffin in the hall and replace it with the Soviet-style flag reinstated by Lukashenko. The red and white standard was replaced at relatives' insistence.

Lukashenko did not attend the ceremony. Senior ministers also stayed away.

Bykov left Belarus in 1998, four years after Lukashenko, who banned some of his book, took power. He lived in Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic, returning to Belarus this month after undergoing surgery. "Our president is probably the only person in the country who has not read his books," Stanislav Shushkevich, post-Soviet Belarus's first head of state, said on NTV television.

Bykov had also run afoul of Soviet authorities, with three works banned in the 1970s for depicting the horrors of war. Within a decade they were required classics on school curricula.