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FILE PHOTO: U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan addresses a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva August 2, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse /File Photo

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By Kwasi Kpodo and Stephanie Nebehay

ACCRA/GENEVA (Reuters) - Former U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan died on Saturday at the age of 80, his foundation said, after decades of championing efforts to try to end protracted conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Annan, a Ghanaian national, died in hospital in Bern, Switzerland, in the early hours, his close associates said.

In Geneva, the Kofi Annan Foundation announced his peaceful death after a short undisclosed illness with "immense sadness", saying he was surrounded in his last days by his second wife Nane and children Ama, Kojo and Nina.

After rising through the ranks of the United Nations, Annan served two terms as U.N. Secretary-General in New York from 1997-2006 and retired to live in a Swiss village in the Geneva countryside. His 10-year-old foundation promotes good governance and the transformation of African agriculture.

"In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organization into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whom Annan had chosen to head the U.N. refugee agency, said in a statement.

Annan and the United Nations shared the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to reform the world body and give priority to human rights issues.

As head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, Annan was criticised for the world body's failure to halt the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.

As U.N. boss he was linked to peace efforts to reunite the divided island of Cyprus, submitting a reunification blueprint which was rejected in a referendum by Greek Cypriots in 2004.

'NOT PERFECT'

He staunchly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later served as the first U.N. envoy at the start of Syria's war, but quit after world powers failed to fulfil their commitments, saying: "I lost my troops on the way to Damascus".

"The U.N. can be improved, it is not perfect but if it didn't exist you would have to create it," he told the BBC's Hard Talk during an interview for his 80th birthday in April, recorded at the Geneva Graduate Institute where he had studied.

"I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist," added Annan, who often joked about having learned from locals to wear earmuffs against the freezing cold during his undergraduate years at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the United States.

Raila Odinga, Kenyan opposition leader and former prime minister, said on Citizen TV: "We didn't expect Kofi to pass that abruptly. Kofi Annan is a man of integrity; a great African, a great leader of the world."

Former U.S. presidents praised Annan.

George W. Bush called him "a gentle man and a tireless leader of the United Nations", while Barack Obama described him as "a diplomat and humanitarian who embodied the mission of the United Nations like few others".

"Kofi Annan devoted his life to making the world a more peaceful place through his compassion and dedication to service. He worked tirelessly to unite us and never stopped fighting for the dignity of every‎ person," U.S. envoy to the U.N. Nikki Haley said.

The Elders, a group of former leaders including Gro Harlem Brundtland and Mary Robinson, paid tribute to their inspiring chairman, noting his visits to South Africa and Zimbabwe in July.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, paid tribute to Annan as "humanity’s best example, the epitome, of human decency and grace".

Zeid, who has criticised major powers and other countries during his four-year term that ends later this month, said that whenever he felt "isolated and alone politically", he would go for long walks with Annan in Geneva.

"When I told him once how everyone was grumbling about me, he looked at me — like a father would look at a son — and said sternly: "You’re doing the right thing, let them grumble."Then he grinned!"

(Reporting by Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michele Kambas in Athens and George Obulutsa in Nairobi; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens)

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Reuters