Ahtisaari wins Nobel Peace Prize

Finland's former president was chosen for his efforts to build a lasting peace in places as diverse as East Timor and the Balkans.

Martti Ahtisaari is credited with overseeing the 2005 reconciliation of the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement (Gam) rebels, bringing an end to a three-decade conflict that killed some 15,000 people.
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Finland's former president, Martti Ahtisaari, received the Nobel Peace Prize today for his efforts to build a lasting peace in places as diverse as East Timor and the Balkans in Europe. "The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2008 to Martti Ahtisaari for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts," the committee said in announcing the prize. "These efforts have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations' in Alfred Nobel's spirit."

Mr Ahtisaari's efforts in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East drew much praise from the five-member committee. "For the past 20 years, he has figured prominently in endeavours to resolve several serious and long-lasting conflicts," the citation said, mentioning his work in conflicts from Namibia and Aceh to Kosovo and Iraq. "He has also made constructive contributions to the resolution of conflicts in Northern Ireland, in Central Asia, and on the Horn of Africa."

Speaking to NRK, Mr Ahtisaari said he "was very pleased and grateful" at receiving the prize. The 71-year-old Finn, a quiet, portly man with a gait afflicted by rheumatism, is credited with overseeing the 2005 reconciliation of the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement (Gam) rebels, bringing an end to a three-decade conflict that killed some 15,000 people. He also helped lead Kosovo down the path toward independence, even though his intense mediation efforts failed to clinch a joint agreement between Serbia and Kosovo before Pristina earlier this year unilaterally declared independence.

Prior to his involvement in the Aceh talks, Mr Ahtisaari was unfamiliar with Asian geopolitics, but widely respected as a gifted diplomat and an outstanding negotiator. He came to the negotiations after a Finnish businessman linked to the Jakarta elite was convinced the former Finnish president had what it took to breathe new life into the apparently moribund peace process. The two sides described Mr Ahtisaari as tough during the talks, but with a sense of humour and warmth on the sidelines.

Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari was born on June 23 1937 in Viipuri (today known as Vyborg), in the Karelia province which his family was forced to flee at the end of World War II after it was annexed by the Soviet Union. His academic career led him to the teaching profession ? he taught in Pakistan at the beginning of the 1960s ? before he entered the diplomatic service.

Although he has focused his talents as a mediator in Europe, Mr Ahtisaari cut his diplomatic teeth in Africa. He was appointed ambassador to Tanzania in 1973, at the age of 36. As the UN secretary general's special envoy to Namibia, Mr Ahtisaari helped lead the country down the peaceful path towards independence in 1990. In 1994, Finland's Social Democratic Party nominated him to run for the presidency and Mr Ahtisaari became the first directly elected Finnish president.

Finland joined the European Union a year later. Scoffed at by the press for his large size and his limp, this man of action was ill at ease with the largely ceremonial role of president. With his true passion in foreign affairs, Mr Ahtisaari later likened his tour in domestic politics, which lasted until 2000, to "an extramarital affair". At the end of 2005, Mr Ahtisaari was appointed the UN special envoy for talks on the final status of the Serbian province of Kosovo, seven years after he played a key role in bringing an end to hostilities there.

"I realised after Belgrade that my role was rather like being a pastor," says Mr Ahtisaari. "The pastor goes through the Ten Commandments and there are always children asking what they mean." As special envoy, Mr Ahtisaari tried to get the Serbs and Kosovars to reach an accord but was repeatedly accused of bias by the Serbs. He recommended independence for the breakaway Serbian province, but his inability to get the two sides to agree was a tough blow for him.

He called off the talks in March 2007, and less than a year later, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence amid loud protests from Belgrade and Moscow, but with the support of much of the international community. In the 1990s, Mr Ahtisaari had been more successful in the region. Towards the end of his Finnish presidency, fierce fighting between Serb forces and Albanian separatists and atrocities committed against civilians in the Kosovo war had grabbed all his attention.

About 10,000 people died in the 1998-1999 Kosovo war as Serb forces tried to put down ethnic Albanian separatists. A Nato air war against late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic halted the conflict. In June 1999, Ahtisaari, the head of state of a militarily non-aligned country and thus not a Nato member, was tasked with submitting a Russian-EU peace initiative to Belgrade. The plan was accepted and Kosovo was place under UN administration.

Mr Ahtisaari is married and has one son. *AFP and AP