British ex-Lib Dem leader and diplomat Paddy Ashdown dies aged 77

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London (AFP)

Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats who served as the international high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, died Saturday at the age of 77, his party announced Saturday.

He made an "immeasurable contribution to furthering the cause of liberalism" and will be "desperately missed", the Lib Dems said in a statement.

Ashdown, a former special forces officer, led the centrist Liberal Democrats in opposition from 1988 until 1999. He served as the international high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006.

He revealed in November that he was being treated for bladder cancer.

Current Lib Dem leader Vince Cable said it was a "hugely sad day" in British politics and paid tribute to Ashdown's talents beyond the political arena, including as an author, a marine and in the diplomatic service.

Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said Ashdown was "political visionary" who was "motivated by values of compassion, decency and a profound commitment to make the world a better place".

"He was one of the most talented politicians never to hold high office, but as leader of the Liberal Democrats he nonetheless had a major impact on British political life," said Blair, who was in office from 1997 to 2007.

"He had courage, personal and political, unafraid to speak his mind yet always open to the views of others. He was one of the least tribal politicians I have ever known."

- 'I will miss him terribly' -

Conservative former prime minister John Major, who was in office from 1990 to 1997, hailed Ashdown as "a man of duty, passion, and devotion to the country he loved".

"In government, Paddy Ashdown was my opponent. In life, he was a much-valued friend," said Major.

"Even when he knew he was gravely ill, Paddy's concern for the future of our country continued to dominate his thinking."

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who led the Lib Dems into coalition government in 2010, said Ashdown was the reason he became a liberal and entered politics, and had been a "lifelong mentor, friend and guide".

"He was the most heartfelt person I have known -- loyal and generous to a fault. Like so many others, I will miss him terribly," said Clegg.

At Ashdown's final election as leader in 1997, the Lib Dems won 19 percent of the vote, securing the party 46 seats, then a record showing for a third party in Britain.

Tim Farron, who headed the party from 2015 to 2017, said: "Paddy Ashdown was a hero to me, he saved and revived the Liberal Democrats at our lowest ebb, and then led us to our best result for 70 years.

"As a movement, we owe him our very existence."

- 'Agent of reconciliation' -

For nearly four years Ashdown served as the de facto leader of Bosnia, earning a reputation as a no-nonsense implementor of tough measures to help the country recover from its 1992-1995 war.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, leader of the world's Anglicans, said: "Paddy Ashdown was an advocate for those others forgot, full of courage, integrity and immensely gifted.

"He served the people of the Balkans with passion and inspiration, an agent of reconciliation. He will be greatly missed."

Ashdown was a patron of the British-based non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch, which said he had been tireless in speaking out for democracy, the rule of law, human rights and autonomy in Hong Kong.

"The people of Hong Kong have lost a true advocate for their freedoms," said co-founder Benedict Rogers.

He also campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum and, after losing, founded a cross-party centrist movement called "More United".

Ashdown was knighted under his real name of Jeremy in 2000 and was made a member of parliament's upper House of Lords.

He was married with two children and lived in Yeovil, southwest England.