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Britain's Margaret Thatcher, the 'Iron Lady', dead at 87

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Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the controversial "Iron Lady" who dominated a generation of British politics and won international acclaim for helping to end the Cold War, died following a stroke on Monday. She was 87.

World leaders paid tribute to Britain's only woman prime minister, whose years in office from 1979 to 1990 saw her take on trade unions, go to war in the Falklands and wield her signature handbag against the European Union.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II said she was saddened by Thatcher's death and Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a European trip, although mining leaders and Irish republicans said she left a bitter legacy.

Red white and blue Union flags flew at half mast over Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the prime minister's Downing Street official residence in a sign of mourning while mourners left flowers outside Thatcher's house.

Britain announced plans for a ceremonial funeral with military honours, although it is a step short of the full state funeral of the kind accorded to monarchs and World War II premier Winston Churchill.

"It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Lady Thatcher. We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton," Cameron said.

"She didn't just lead our country, she saved our country."

Thatcher suffered from dementia in recent years -- her illness becoming the subject of a biographical film starring Meryl Streep -- and appeared rarely in public. She was last in hospital in December for a minor operation to remove a growth from her bladder.

The former Conservative Party leader was the 20th century's longest continuous occupant of Downing Street.

Right-wingers hailed Thatcher as having hauled Britain out of the economic doldrums but the left accused her of dismantling traditional industry, claiming her reforms helped unpick the fabric of society.

Her health worsened in the years after she was forced out of office in 1990 and the former premier had to be repeatedly reminded that her husband Denis had died in 2003, her daughter Carol once revealed.

Thatcher was told by doctors to quit public speaking a decade ago after a series of minor strokes.

"It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning," her spokesman Lord Tim Bell said, referring to Thatcher's children.

Bell said she died while staying at the Ritz Hotel in London.

Britain's 86-year-old queen, who shared weekly chats with Thatcher during her 11 years in power, was "sad to hear the news of the death of Baroness Thatcher," Buckingham Palace said.

Downing Street said that with the queen's consent Thatcher would receive a "ceremonial funeral with military honours" at St Paul's Cathedral in central London. A date has not yet been announced.

A private cremation would follow later, it said, adding that the arrangements were at the request of Thatcher's family. British newspapers reported that the former premier had herself requested that she did not receive a state funeral, knowing that it would prove divisive.

Cameron was meanwhile flying back to London from Madrid where he had been in talks with Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy on reforming the European Union, while a visit to Paris to meet President Francois Hollande had also been cancelled, Downing Street later said.

Reaction was mixed in Britain.

"It's a crying shame, she's a good woman," said law firm employee Alan Whiteford in London.

But David Hopper, regional secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in northeast England, said few tears would be shed in his industry, one of the hardest hit by Thatcher's policies.

He said: "I'm having a drink to it (her death) right now. It's my 70th birthday today and it's one of the best I've had in my life."

On the world stage, Thatcher built a close "special relationship" with US president Ronald Reagan which helped bring the curtain down on Soviet Communism. She also fiercely opposed closer political ties with Europe.

President Barack Obama said the United States had lost a "true friend" and the world "one of the great champions of freedom and liberty."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country was divided by the Iron Curtain, said Thatcher was an "extraordinary leader" while Hollande said she left a "profound mark" on Britain.

Gorbachev, whose good relations with Thatcher played a part in ending the Cold War, said she would live on in "memory and in history." Poland's former president and anti-communist icon Lech Walesa said she did a "great deal for the world".

European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso meanwhile hailed her "contributions" to the growth of the EU, despite her famous reservations about continental European integration.

Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925 in the market town of Grantham, eastern England, the daughter of a grocer.

After grammar school and a degree in chemistry at Oxford University, she married businessman Denis in 1951 and two years later had twins, Carol and Mark.

She was first elected to the House of Commons in 1959 and succeeded former prime minister Edward Heath as opposition Conservative leader in 1975 before becoming premier four years later.

Her enduring legacy can be summed up as "Thatcherism" -- a set of policies which supporters say promoted personal freedom and broke down the class divisions that had riven Britain for centuries.

Pushing her policies through pitched Thatcher's government into a string of tough battles, while she also had to deal with unexpected setbacks.

When Argentina invaded the remote British territory of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher dispatched troops and ships, securing victory in two months.

In 1984 Thatcher survived an Irish Republican Army bombing.

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