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Ex-UN Head Kurt Waldheim Dead At 88

  • Nikola Krastev --> Former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim in Beirut in 2002 (AFP) UNITED NATIONS, June 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Former United Nations Secretary-General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim has died of heart failure at the age of 88.

In the span of Waldheim's long life, accusations that he was complicit in war crimes as a Nazi officer during World War II seriously undermined his legacy.

Kurt Waldheim, who died on June 14, was sworn in as the fourth UN secretary-general on January 1, 1972. Just two weeks later he made his first trip as the head of the world body, to Moscow.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to have the opportunity to meet you, the mass media personally, here in Moscow," he said at the press conference concluding his visit. "This is the end of my official visit to the Soviet Union and I wish to take this opportunity before leaving Moscow to express my gratitude to the Soviet authorities, to the Soviet government for inviting me to this official visit -- the first visit in my new capacity as a secretary-general of the United Nations."

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's government strongly supported Kurt Waldheim during his 10-year tenure at the UN despite -- as it emerged in the late 1980's -- knowing the allegations that Waldheim was complicit in war crimes committed in the Balkans during World War II.

Moscow continued to support Waldheim even as he ran for a third UN term in 1981, but China cast a veto that ended his career. The UN Charter was then modified so that subsequent secretary-generals could only serve two terms.

Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev (right) greeting Waldheim in Moscow in 1977 (TASS)

Michele Montas, the spokesperson for current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, said today that the UN will honor its former chief by lowering the flags of UN-member states in front of the UN's New York headquarters to half mast.

"The UN secretary-general notes that Mr. Waldheim served the United Nations at a crucial period in the history of the organization -- from 1972 to 1981," Montas said on June 14. "The secretary-general extends his condolences to Mr. Waldheim's family as well as to the Austrian government and people.”

Akram Zadeh, who has been a UN-based correspondent for the Islam Media News Bureau since 1971, spoke with Waldheim several times while he occupied the secretary-general's office.

"Kurt Waldheim was a real gentleman," Zadeh told RFE/RL. "He was always available to journalists. He was very aggressive, of course, in many ways to pinpoint some important issues. Of course, the most important thing at the time was the Middle East problem."

Thirty-five years later, the Middle East problem'is still among the biggest challenges the UN faces.

In April 1987, the U.S. Justice Department barred Waldheim from entering the United States on the basis that he had "assisted or participated" in the deportation, mistreatment, and execution of civilians during the World War II.

The ban remained in effect through the end of his life.