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Europe

Austrian President Klestil Dies

Austrian President Thomas Klestil died late Tuesday after suffering a heart attack only two days before he was due to leave office. The 71-year-old helped his country come to terms with its Nazi past.

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Klestil had a history of health problems

Klestil had been battling his health problems for years. In September 1996, he was hospitalized with atypical pneumonia, most often characterized by long drawn-out symptoms, but he still managed to carry out his duties from his sickbed. That same year he had a pulmonary embolism, a condition that fills the lungs with water, and fell ill again last year with a lung infection.

These illnesses slowed him down during his 12 years as president, forcing him to cut back on the open-door days he had instituted after first taking office in 1992. Klestil wanted to bring the presidency closer to the people, by allowing them to tour his offices.

The seventh president of the second Austrian republic, Klestil was a strong supporter of NATO. He had long pleaded, in vain, for his country to join the Atlantic alliance -- which would have meant an end to the neutrality observed by Austria since 1955.

He also failed to boost the presidency by giving it more powers -- the office is largely ceremonial under the Austrian constitution.

Arguably his greatest achievement was helping Austria come to terms with its Nazi past. He frequently addressed the country's role during World War II and made a point of visiting Israel.

Career diplomat

Born in Vienna on November 4, 1932, Klestil studied economics before embarking on a career as a diplomat. He held positions as ambassador to the United Nations from 1978-82. In 1992, Klestil, a member of the conservative People's Party, served the first of two terms as president.

Klestil also opposed but could not stop conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel from forming a government with Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in 2000. Klestil remained an effective representative of Austria's interests within the European Union, after the rise to power of the far-right drew diplomatic sanctions from other EU member states.

In 2003, when Schüssel re-formed his conservative far-right government after elections, Klestil contented himself with only muted criticism saying the government should be formed with "a wider basis."

Klestil's successor, Heinz Fischer, will be sworn in as president this week.

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