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Former UN Chief, Ex-Austrian President Kurt Waldheim Dies


Former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who later served as president of Austria, has died in Vienna at the age of 88. VOA Correspondent Peter Heinlein reports Mr. Waldheim's legacy was tarnished by his past as a German soldier in World War II.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office Thursday issued a terse three-sentence statement on Mr. Waldheim's death. The statement was read by U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas.

"The secretary-general learned with sadness of the passing of Kurt Waldheim," she said. "The secretary-general notes that Mr. Waldheim served the United Nations at a crucial period in the history of the organization, from 1972 to 1981. The secretary-general extends his condolences to Mr. Waldheim's family, as well as to the Austrian government and people."

The brevity of that statement indicates the world body's mixed feelings toward Mr. Waldheim, whose reputation was tainted by disclosures he had hidden his past in Nazi Germany during World War II. It also reflects Mr. Waldheim's mixed record of leadership of an organization whose effectiveness was hampered by Cold War tensions.

In an interview after stepping down, Mr. Waldheim regretted his inability to solve the great issues of that time.

"Certainly I was disappointed that we could not achieve a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, the Cyprus question was not resolved, but this is not the fault of the United Nations and certainly not my own fault," he said.

After completing two terms as secretary-general, Mr. Waldheim was elected president of Austria, and served from 1986 to 1992, despite revelations that he had belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in World War II.

Several investigations supported his contention that he had not committed any crimes. But he later acknowledged he had made a mistake by initially denying his service, then saying that he, like other Austrians, had simply been doing his duty.

He was seen by many Austrians as an innocent victim of a smear campaign.

Austria's Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer said, "We have lost a great Austrian."

The accusations against him made him unwelcome in many countries. In 1987, the U.S. Justice Department placed Mr. Waldheim on a "watch list" of undesirable aliens, and barred him from further visits to the United States.

In an autobiography published in 1996, Mr. Waldheim conceded that his early failure to address his wartime military record had cast him in the role of political villain rather than elder statesman.

United Nations officials said that in keeping with tradition, the flags of member states would not be flown outside the headquarters building in New York on Friday. The U.N. flag will fly at half-staff.