Denktash advocated strongly for a separate state since he first entered into politics in the 1950s [GALLO/GETTY]

Rauf Denktash, the former Turkish Cypriot leader whose determined pursuit of a separate state for his people and strong opposition to the divided island's reunification defined a political career spanning six decades, has died at age 87.

Dr Charles Canver, who treated Denktash for his heart condition, said that he died late on Friday of multiple organ failure at Near East University Hospital in the Turkish Cypriot north of town of Nicosia.

Denktash was hospitalised last week with diarrhea and dehydration and had been in poor health since suffering a stroke last May. Canver said Denktash's weakened heart contributed to his organ failure.

Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu said: "We as Turkish Cypriots won't forget (Denktash's) selfless struggle for our freedom."

Denktash's son, Serdar, said his father was no longer with his people, but that "he is now among the fallen heroes and soldiers".

Denktash's death comes in the middle of yet another diplomatic drive to reunify Cyprus, which has been split along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island in the aftermath of a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece.

Devoted Turkish nationalist

Denktash had maintained the Turkish Cypriots needed a separate state to preserve peace and avoid a return to what he called massacres of Turkish Cypriots at the hands of the majority Greek Cypriots.

His dedication to the partitionist cause made him a hero to many Turkish Cypriots, just as Greek Cypriots saw him as their arch-villain.

That image began to be molded in the late 1950s when Denktash helped found the Turkish Resistance Organization or TMT as a counterweight to EOKA, a Greek Cypriot group waging a guerrilla campaign against the island's then colonial ruler Britain to achieve union with Greece.

Denktash's dominance of Turkish Cypriot politics was reflected in his victory in every presidential election between 1983 and 2000.

But in his later years, many Turkish Cypriots came to view his insistence on a separate state as an obstacle to a settlement that would lift them out of international economic and political isolation and usher them into the European Union that the internationally recognized Greek Cypriots were negotiating with the bloc.

Denktash left politics in 2005 after announcing that he would not seek re-election, but he continued to be a
vocal supporter of a two-state solution as an elder leader.

"Whatever mistake we committed, the result is a 23-year-old young, dynamic, small Republic which is absolutely necessary for the security and strategic location of Turkey," Denktash said in 2006.

"No one would like to see the Turkish soldiers to return to Anatolia as if they lost a war ... May God save this nation from seeing such a shame," he said.

Denktash is survived by his wife Aydin, three children and 11 grandchildren.

Source: Agencies