World leaders mourn death of Richard Holbrooke

US officials and leaders across the world mourn the death of Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who spearheaded efforts to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and was working in the role of US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, whispers to U.S. Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke ahead of the starting a news event at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
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WASHINGTON // US officials and leaders across the world were yesterday mourning the death of Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who spearheaded efforts to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and who was attempting the same in his role as US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr Holbrooke, 69, died on Monday in Washington from complications after surgery to repair a torn aorta.

Barack Obama, the US president, praised him as "a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace".

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, with whom Mr Holbrooke was meeting on Friday when he fell ill, called him a one-of-a-kind. "Richard Holbrooke served the country he loved for nearly half a century, representing the United States in far-flung war zones and high-level peace talks, always with distinctive brilliance and unmatched determination. He was one of a kind - a true statesman - and that makes his passing all the more painful."

A veteran of four Democratic administrations, Holbrooke was a diplomat to the core, even if his forceful style and no-nonsense approach also saw him bully though agreement at times. He helped shape US foreign policy for 40 years and through three wars, starting with Vietnam, where he was one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the US government's secret history of the war.

His defining moment, however, came in 1995, when he forged the Dayton Accords. Hammered out among warring rivals at a US air force base outside Dayton, Ohio, the agreement essentially ended the fighting in the former Yugoslavia that had cost 100,000 lives. It cemented his reputation as a presidential wartime troubleshooter, and many feel it should have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. It was his role in that conflict that led Mr Obama to turn to him to help the administration in Afghanistan. His role there was far broader than it was in the former Yugoslavia. Holbrooke was tasked not only with finding an agreement to end the conflict, but - in charge of US civilian assistance to the country - to help restructure and build Afghan civil society.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, yesterday described Mr Holbrooke as a "first class diplomat" who brought "energy, vision and drive" to his work addressing political instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His "efforts will always be remembered".

But his role there also saw him in frequent conflict with Afghanistan's leaders, and in typical style, he did not shy away from confrontation, holding the Afghan government to account on tackling corruption and providing public services. He was understood to be, in private, deeply frustrated with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

Mr Karzai, who called Holbrooke's family as they held vigil at his hospital bed, said yesterday that Holbrooke had "served greatly the government and the people of the United States".

His relations with Pakistani leaders were much better and he has been credited with improving US relations with Pakistan since Mr Obama took office in January 2009.

"Pakistan has been deprived of a best friend," said Asif Ali Zardari, the president, in a statement.

Holbrooke worked tirelessly to persuade sceptical officials in Pakistan that the US was seeking a long-term relationship, rather than one that would end with the departure of US forces from Afghanistan.

Pakistani analysts were concerned that Holbrooke's passing could weaken support within the Obama administration for a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. His death came ahead of the scheduled announcement on Thursday of the Obama administration's revised strategy on Afghanistan.

Mr Holbrooke is survived by his wife, Kati Marton, two sons from his first marriage, two stepchildren, a brother and four grandchildren.

* With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations