OSLO (AFP) — The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who has spent 30 years helping end conflicts in troublespots ranging from Kosovo to Namibia and Indonesia.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee hailed the 71-year-old Ahtisaari "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts."
Ahtisaari, who has figured among the frontrunners for the prize for years, said he had not been expecting to win the 2008 award.
"But definitely I was hoping, because this is the highest recognition that a person in my profession can have," he told reporters just hours after the announcement.
"I think it's very rewarding to be in the same category as some people I have admired like (1993 peace laureate Nelson) Mandela," he added.
While his decades of conflict resolution were full of "special cases," Ahtisaari said the highlight of his career had been his tour as United Nations special envoy to Namibia , during which he helped guide the country to peaceful independence after more than a decade of talks.
"Of course Namibia is the most important since it took so long," he said.
He also oversaw the 2005 reconciliation between the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, ending a three-decade conflict that killed some 15,000 people.
In Europe he was deeply involved in Kosovo , even though his mediation efforts failed to clinch an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Pristina in February this year unilaterally declared its independence.
And in May 2000 the British government appointed Ahtisaari to co-head, with Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, the inspection of IRA arms' dumps in Northern Ireland.
"He never gives up ... The world needs more people like him," Nobel committee head Ole Danbolt Mjoes said.
Ahtisaari cut his diplomatic teeth in Africa, where he was appointed Finland's ambassador to Tanzania in 1973, at the age of 36, before beginning his UN work in Namibia in 1977.
In 1994, Ahtisaari became the first directly elected Finnish president.
Foreign affairs however remained his true passion, and he has likened his six-year tour in domestic politics to "an extramarital affair".
At the end of 2005, he was appointed the UN special envoy for talks on Kosovo, seven years after he played a key role in bringing an end to hostilities in the breakaway Serbian province.
He recommended independence for Kosovo, where there is an ethnic Albanian majority, but his inability to get the two sides to agree was a blow for him.
"We are not saying that everything that Ahtisaari has been involved in has led to success and a final solution to the problem," Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad told AFP.
"But he has had some marvelous successes and he has worked hard on even the most difficult problems," he said, adding that the committee believed "there is no alternative to an independent Kosovo."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an adamant supporter of Kosovo's independence, said he saw this year's Nobel Peace Prize "as a recognition that the proposal of president Ahtisaari was the right one."
The United States congratulated Ahtisaari, with State Department spokesman Sean McCormack saying he "has dedicated his life to promoting peace throughout the world.
"It is deeply gratifying to see his work and achievements honored in this manner."
Some of the biggest names in world diplomacy were also quick to salute Ahtisaari's peacemaking efforts.
Jakarta too congratulated the man who secured its Aceh peace accord three years ago.
"Ahtisaari is the right choice to receive the Nobel prize," said presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal.
Ahtisaari meanwhile said he planned to spend the 10-million-kronor (1.02 million euros, 1.42 million dollars) prize money to help finance the Crisis Management Initiative group he founded after he concluded his six-year term as Finnish president in 2000.
"I have a feeling that we could do much more than we have done so far if the core funding would be facilitated," he told a press conference.
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen congratulated Finland's first Peace Prize laureate, saying "his commitment to peace and human rights is remarkable."
With its decision to hand the 2008 prize to Ahtisaari, the Nobel committee has returned to a more traditional interpretation of the award, after broadening the prize's boundaries in recent years to encompass environmental work, for instance.
Last year's Peace Prize went to former US vice president Al Gore and the United Nations panel on climate change.
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