Foes, friends pay tribute to Thatcher's leadership

Former friends and foes alike from across the world paid tribute Monday to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, remembering an "extraordinary leader" who stamped her authority everywhere.

The "Iron Lady" was a polarising figure in Britain and beyond during her time in office, but foreign leaders Monday were unanimous in acknowledging her place in 20th-century history, with Barack Obama mourning a "true friend of America".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had never met Thatcher in an official capacity, but was still "inspired by her leadership".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed Thatcher as "an extraordinary leader in the global politics of her time".

And French President Francois Hollande called Britain's longest serving prime minister of the modern era a "great figure who left a profound mark on the history of her country."

Meanwhile in Brussels, European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso paid tribute to Thatcher's "contributions" to the growth of the European Union, despite her reservations about continental integration.

Among her contemporaries, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who held frequent meetings with Thatcher in the 1980s as the Cold War drew to a close, said the British premier will go down in history for her commitment and resolve.

"Margaret Thatcher was a great politician and a bright individual. She will go down in our memory and in history," the Nobel Peace Prize winner said in a statement released by his foundation.

"Thatcher was a politician whose words carried great weight," he added, calling her death "sad news".

Thatcher, who once famously said of Gorbachev that "this is a man I can do business with," died of stroke on Monday aged 87.

"Our first meeting in 1984 gave the start to relations that were at times difficult, not always smooth, but which were serious and responsible for us both," Gorbachev noted.

Fellow Cold War hero Lech Walesa, the Polish dockyard worker whose pro-democracy Solidarity movement helped create the first cracks in the Soviet system in the 1980s, said Thatcher helped communism fall in his own country.

"She was a great personality who has done many things for the world that contributed to the fall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe," Walesa told AFP.

Her US colleagues of the time also called the baroness a towering figure who helped changed the course of the last century.

Former US president George H. W. Bush, who served as both vice president and White House chief when Thatcher was in power, called her "a leader of rare character ... whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world."

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger for his part told CNN that Thatcher was a "gutsy personality ... who learned the fact that a leader needed to have strong convictions."

But even those with reason to remember the sometimes divisive figure less fondly were quick to pay tribute to her huge personality.

In South Africa, a spokesman for the ruling African National Congress recalled the differences between Thatcher and those fighting against apartheid in the 1980s.

"She failed to acknowledge the ANC as the rightful party of governance, but was out of touch with the British people on that issue. It's water under the bridge," said spokesman Keith Khoza.

But he added: "Margaret Thatcher was a leader of note, despite disagreements in policy between her and the ANC."

Israel's conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the very first leaders to speak publicly of Thatcher's passing, saying that "she was truly a great leader".

Israeli President Shimon Peres, for his part, said: "There are people, there are ideas. Occasionally those two come together to create vision. ... (Thatcher) showed how far a person can go with strength of character, determination and a clear vision."

And in Asia, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- a conservative who in February echoed the Iron Lady in a speech to parliament about territorial disputes with China -- said we wanted "to share deep sorrow with the British public."