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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kurt Waldheim, Former UN Leader, Dead at 88

VIENNA -- Former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who was elected Austrian president despite an international scandal about his secretive World War II military service for the Nazis, died Thursday. He was 88.

Waldheim, who was hospitalized in Vienna late last month with an infection, died at home of heart failure, state broadcaster ORF reported.

Waldheim's legacy as United Nations chief from 1972 to 1981 and his tenure as president from 1986 to 1992 were overshadowed by revelations that he belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans during World War II.

While Waldheim himself was not implicated in wrongdoing, his initial denial of such service -- and then assertions that he and fellow Austrians were only doing their duty -- led to international censure and a decision by Washington to place him on a watch list of people prohibited from visiting the United States. That ban was never lifted.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon learned "with sadness" of Waldheim's death, saying he served the United Nations "at a crucial period in the history of the organization," UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said at the organization's headquarters in New York.

Waldheim's ascendancy to the Austrian presidency led to a bruising controversy at home and damaged Austria's reputation abroad. During his term, Austria was largely shunned by foreign leaders, and he never honored his pledge to be a strong president.

Throughout his turbulent campaign and presidency, Waldheim, a career diplomat, was confronted with purported evidence that he was personally implicated in wartime atrocities.

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

In Austria, Waldheim's backers saw him as an innocent victim of a smear campaign launched from abroad but triggered at home, while opponents kept clamoring for his resignation.

He served two five-year terms as secretary-general of the United Nations, but China vetoed his attempt at a third term.

Waldheim is survived by his wife, Elisabeth, whom he married in 1944, and their three children.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday.