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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Army role in WW II dogged U.N. leader

Waldheim Waldheim
AP Enlarge

VIENNA - Former U.N. chief Kurt Waldheim, 88, who was barred from the United States for two decades after revelations that he belonged to a German army unit that committed World War II atrocities, died yesterday.

Although it was never proved that Mr. Waldheim personally committed war crimes, he left public life under a cloud. He died with his name still on a watch list prohibiting foreigners considered undesirables from visiting the United States.

The state broadcaster ORF said he had died of heart failure at his home in Vienna with family members by him. He was hospitalized late in May with an infection and a high fever.

Mr. Waldheim was U.N. secretary-general from 1972-81 and president of Austria from 1986-92. But his reputation was tarnished by his secretive wartime past in the Balkans.

The details did not become common knowledge until five years after he had left the U.N. The revelations led to a bruising controversy at home that ultimately damaged Austria's reputation abroad. During Mr. Waldheim's six-year term as president, the country was largely shunned by foreign leaders.

His backers saw him as an innocent victim of a smear campaign. Opponents clamored for his resignation.

His past began surfacing early in his campaign for president when he published a memoir that did not mention his service to the Nazis. In official biographies, Mr. Waldheim initially said he had been wounded at the Russian front in 1941 and had returned to Austria to continue his studies.

Only after being confronted with documents showing his unit had killed partisans and civilians, along with allegations that the victims included thousands of children, did Mr. Waldheim gradually revise his official resume.

His denials of service in Hitler's army and later claims that he and fellow Austrians were doing their duty brought international censure. In April 1987, the Justice Department prohibited Mr. Waldheim from entering the United States.

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