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Wilfried Martens, former Belgian premier, dies

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October 10, 2013 04:11 AM EST | AP

BRUSSELS — BRUSSELS (AP) — Wilfried Martens, who led nine Belgian governments and the European Union's Christian Democrat group, has died. He was 77.

Martens died overnight at his home surrounded by family, a family statement said Thursday. It did not provide details of where and why he died, but heart problems have long affected Martens' health.

Leading members of his party lauded Martens as a tireless leader to keep his nation of Dutch- and French-speakers together while giving the two linguistic regions ever more autonomy. Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said "Belgium lost one of its most prominent politicians."

Martens led governments with socialists, liberal and grand coalitions in the 1980s and early 1990s and proved capable of keeping the volatile factions in the nation together.

He also helped found the European People's Party and led the EU's Christian Democrat Christian group for almost two decades before asking last week to be relieved from the job.

Political leaders paid tribute to him on Thursday.

The president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, called him "a great statesman of Belgium, Europe and an outstanding leader in the European Parliament."

EU President Herman Van Rompuy, also a Dutch-speaking Belgian Christian Democrat, remembered how Martens imposed austerity measures to counter runaway spending in Belgium during the 1980s to turn the nation around. "He lifted our country out of a morass," he said.

As much as for his political ambition, he was also renowned for a caustic amorous life, which included three marriages and five children.