WASHINGTON, United States - America's first black president Barack Obama Thursday mourned Nelson Mandela as a "profoundly good" man who "took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice."
Obama - who met the former South African president briefly only once in 2005, but was inspired to enter politics by the anti-apartheid hero's example - paid a somber heartfelt tribute within 45 minutes of Mandela's death being announced.
"We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said in a televised statement, hailing his political hero for his "fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others."
Obama said Mandela, in his journey from a "prisoner to a president," transformed South Africa and "moved all of us."
"He achieved more than could be expected of any man."
"Today he's gone home and we've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.
"He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages."
Obama recalled how his passion for change was stirred by taking part in an anti-apartheid rally - his first ever political act.
"The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears," Obama said.
Mandela's fragile health overshadowed Obama's trip to South Africa in June, and there had been fears that the former South African leader would pass away while Obama was in the country.
The president decided against visiting Mandela in hospital, reasoning he would be a distraction, and met with members of his family instead.
But his entire trip became a prolonged tribute to Obama, and the president took his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha to Robben Island, where Mandela was held in spartan conditions by the racist apartheid regime.