A history teacher and underground journalist who became a self-taught military leader, General Vo Nguyen Giap died at the 108 Military Hospital in Hanoi on Friday after years in hospital with ill health. The 102-year-old was one of the country's most revered figures and the last living member of its revolutionary old guard.
"He died of old age, not because of any illness," a senior military official at the hospital said, requesting anonymity because the retired general's death had not been formally announced.
"The news about his death will only be made public after the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam approves," one of Giap's relatives said.
Giap linked up with exiled future Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in China, and later became a founding father of the Vietnam People's Army. When Ho proclaimed his first Vietnamese government in 1945, Giap was made interior minister, army chief and later defense minister.
He was a commander in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Vietnamese victory that marked the end of French colonial rule. This triumph, however, led to the partition of the country and ultimately the Vietnamese War between the Communist North and the US-backed South.
Giap was also credited with masterminding the final offensive against South Vietnam in 1975. After the Fall of Saigon and the US withdrawal from the conflict, Giap stayed on as defense minister in Vietnam.
"When I was young, I had a dream that one day I would see my country free and united," Giap later said in a PBS interview. "That day, my dream came true."
'Every inhabitant is a soldier, every village a fortress'
Giap returned to Vietnam from China in 1941, discovering that his wife had died in a French prison while he was away. Giap began training an army of revolutionary peasant soldiers, stressing the importance on Maoist-inspired guerilla tactics for an impoverished country to beat an economically-developed military.
Giap was widely praised as one of the world's greatest military minds, though critics would point to the scale of losses the general was willing to sustain in order to defeat better-stocked opposing armies.
"Guerilla war is the war of the broad masses of an economically backward country standing up against a powerfully equipped and well-trained army of aggression," Giap wrote in one of several memoirs. "Every inhabitant is a soldier, every village a fortress."
The general later referred to the Vietnam War as "the beginning of international civilization," as the first great defeat for the West that shook the foundations of colonialism. Other liberation movements around the world often revered his military achievements.
"As we grew up in our own struggle, General Giap was one of our national heroes," South African President Thabo Mbeki said in 2007.
msh/rg (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)