Former Belgian premier Wilfried Martens dies at 77

Former Belgian premier Wilfried Martens dies at 77

BRUSSELS - Long-serving former Belgian premier and European conservative leader Wilfried Martens died overnight aged 77.

Martens headed nine Belgian governments over a dozen years and led the European People's Party conservative group (EPP), the largest in the European Parliament, for more than a quarter century.

A Flemish-speaker whose parents were farmers, Martens was born the eldest of a family of seven on April 19, 1936, and went on to study law, philosophy and theology.

As premier of the small but linguistically-divided nation between 1979 and 1992 - with the exception of an eight-month interlude in 1981 - Martens is credited with having successfully kept together its Flemish- and French-speaking communities.

"We will notably remember him as one of the fathers of federal Belgium," said Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.

"He was a convinced European and pursued his commitment to the Europan ideal to the very end," Di Rupo added.

Martens only a few days ago announced that he would hand over the reins of the EPP after having been hospitalised in August and early September.

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso paid tribute to his commitment to the European Union and European Parliament president Martin Schulz said he had been "a great Belgian statesman, a European and an exceptional leader within the parliament".

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