Former UN chief Waldheim dies

Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general who was elected Austrian president despite an international scandal about his Second World War military service, died Thursday.

Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general who was elected Austrian president despite an international scandal about his Second World Warmilitary service, has died.

Waldheim, 88, who was hospitalized in Vienna late in May with a fever-causing infection, died of heart failure on Thursday,hisfamily said.

Austria's President Heinz Fischer issued a statement expressing his "deepest condolences," and officials lowered the flag flying outside his office to half-mast.

In a statement, current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Waldheim"served the United Nations at a crucial period in the history of the organization, from 1972 to 1981." He expressed his condolences to Waldheim's family, the Austrian government and people.

Waldheim, who had a career as a diplomat after the war, was ambassador to Canada from 1958 to 1960.

Waldheim followed by controversy

Waldheim's tenure as United Nations chief from 1972-81 and his election as president in 1986 were overshadowed by revelations that he belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans during the war.

Waldheim was first confronted with purported evidence of his personal implication in wartime atrocities when he ran for the Austrian presidency in 1986.

He consistently denied any wrongdoing, defending himself against disclosures made by his main accuser, the World Jewish Congress, and by foreign media.

Waldheim's rise to the presidency led to a bruising controversy at home that damaged Austria's reputation abroad.

During his tenure from 1986-92, Austria was largely shunned by foreign leaders, and he never honoured his pledge to be a strong president.

In Austria, Waldheim's backers saw him as an innocent victim of a smear campaign launched from abroad but triggered at home. But his opponents kept clamouring for his resignation because of the huge loss of prestige for the country caused by his election.

Barred from visiting U.S.

In April 1987, the the U.S. Justice Department put Waldheim on a "watch list" of undesirable aliens that barred him from entering the United States — an embarrassment no other Austrian public figure had ever experienced.

In February 1988, a government-appointed international commission of six historians investigating his wartime service said it found no proof that Waldheim himself had committed war crimes. However, it also made clear that his record was far from unblemished.

The panel declared that Waldheim had been in "direct proximity to criminal actions."

Its report said that Waldheim knew about German army atrocities in the Balkans and never undertook any action to prevent or oppose them.

In his official biographies, Waldheim initially said he had been wounded at the Russian front in 1941 and returned to Austria to continue his studies.

Changed his story

Only under pressure did Waldheim gradually revise his official résumé to say that he was transferred to the Balkans in April 1942; went to Arsakli, Greece, as an interpreter that summer; and, in April 1943, became an assistant adjutant with Army Group E, Department I-C. Its commander, Gen. Alexander Loehr, was later executed in Yugoslavia for war crimes.

The World Jewish Congress published documents showing that Waldheim's unit killed partisans and civilians. Some of the papers bore Waldheim's signature or initial. But he kept insisting that his job had been merely to verify their authenticity, not to act on the information or give orders.

As pressure mounted from all sides, Yugoslav newspapers published a facsimile of a 1947 document showing Waldheim's name on a list of German officers who took part in the infamous Mount Kozara operation.

According to some Yugoslav versions, 68,000 people— including 23,000 children— died in the offensive. Waldheim originally declared he had been behind the lines near Kozara. Later, he said he had confused the geography.