WASHINGTON -- U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and who brokered the peace deal that ended the war in Bosnia, has died in Washington at the age of 69.
Holbrooke fell ill on December 10 during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department and was taken to nearby George Washington Hospital.
He had 21 hours of surgery the following day to repair a tear in his aorta, the major artery that carries blood out of the heart.
He underwent a second round of surgery on December 12 and remained in critical condition, surrounded by his family.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari were among the many world leaders who had called Holbrooke to wish him well.
In a statement, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, were deeply saddened at the news. He called Holbrooke "a true giant of American foreign policy" who made America "stronger, safer, and more respected." He said Holbrooke was "a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace."
The U.S. president added, "The progress that we have made in Afghanistan and Pakistan is due in no small measure to Richard's relentless focus on America's national interest, and pursuit of peace and security."
Clinton said the country "has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants" and that as secretary, she had counted on his advice and relied on his leadership.
"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," Clinton said in a statement.
"He was one of a kind -- a true statesman -- and that makes his passing all the more painful."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai with Holbrooke in Kabul on April 11, 2010
Obama appointed the career diplomat in 2009 to be his special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In that role, Holbrooke made dozens of trips to the region to meet with both countries' leaders and implement the White House's civilian strategy in Afghanistan, overseeing more than 1,000 diplomats, infrastructure, aid, and governance specialists who are helping rebuild the country.
In Kabul, Ahmad Zia Syamak, a spokesman for Karzai, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan: "We are deeply saddened by the death of U.S special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. His death is a big loss. We express our condolences through your radio to the American people and government."
Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith described Holbrooke as "highly regarded by his foreign ministerial and defense ministerial colleagues," including from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and called him a "tower of United States diplomacy."
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Holbrooke had "contributed enormously to the cause of a more peaceful and just world" and "will be deeply mourned by many people in many different nations."
As the White House's point person on the 9-year old war, Holbrooke maintained a breakneck pace. At a congressional hearing this summer on White House strategy in Afghanistan, he called his mission "the most difficult job I've had in my career." But he also said, "I wouldn't be in this job if I thought it was impossible to succeed."
In April, his doctors forced him to temporarily stop working so he could undergo a procedure to clear clogged arteries.
Holbrooke is best known for brokering the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia. At the time, he was assistant U.S. secretary of state.
That, and other diplomatic victories, helped earn him nicknames like "The Bulldozer" and "Raging Bull" for his persistence at convincing warring leaders to sit down and negotiate.
Holbrooke detailed his experience negotiating the Bosnian peace deal in his 1998 memoir, "To End a War."
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (left) with then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, on October 31, 1995.
He began his diplomatic career at the height of the Vietnam War in 1963 and was only 35 when he became the youngest person ever to hold the position of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
While serving in the White House under President Lyndon Johnson, Holbrooke wrote one volume of the "Pentagon Papers," the 1967 internal government study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that contained damaging revelations and was subsequently leaked to the press.
In the 1970s, Holbrooke led Washington's successful efforts to normalize relations with China.
He served as ambassador to Germany in 1993-94 and in 1998 negotiated an agreement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, where they were accused of conducting an ethnic-cleansing campaign.
Holbrooke later said, "I make no apologies for negotiating with Milosevic and even worse people, provided one doesn't lose one's point of view." Despite his efforts, the deal eventually fell apart.
In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton made Holbrooke the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
His death comes just days before the White House is set to release its review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which Holbrooke had been working to help finish.
He is survived by his wife, journalist Kati Marton, and four adult children.
written by Heather Maher, with additional agency reports