PRAGUE (Reuters) - A Czech anti-communist resistance fighter who shot his way to freedom in a daring 1953 escape that embarrassed Cold War totalitarian rulers died on Saturday in the United States, Czech Television reported.
Ctirad Masin, 81, was part of the Masin brothers group that killed seven people in the early days of the Cold War, including German soldiers and a Czech civilian. The group carried out raids in Czechoslovakia before escaping to West Berlin.
The escape inspired a number of documentaries and books but the group's actions continue to divide Czechs and their view of four decades of Communist totalitarian rule that started in 1948 and ended with the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution.
Masin died in a war veteran's sanitorium in Ohio after an illness, Czech media said.
"I respected him deeply for his bravery. He proved his heroism by resistance against totalitarian dictatorship, which threw our country into decades of oppression," Prime Minister Petr Necas said in a statement.
The Masin group, led by sons of a Czechoslovak general executed by the Nazis during War World Two, was the only opposition armed group in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Two of the five-strong cell were caught during the escape and executed but the other three reached West Berlin after a month-long manhunt involving thousands of East German police and soldiers.
They joined the U.S. army, which they hoped would soon launch war against the Soviet empire.
Prosecution in absentia of the two escaped Masin brothers and the third member, Josef Paumer, was halted after the end of communist rule in 1989. Paumer died last year.
Many Czechs consider the fighters to be heroes but others say their actions were crimes, or at least were not the best way to fight the totalitarian government.
The group were awarded a prime minister's medal in 2008 but the Masin brothers never returned to live in the country, saying it had not broken decisively enough with its communist past.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka)