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LUDWIGSHAFEN, Germany (Reuters) - Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who oversaw the reunification of Germany - a process that was opposed at the time by Margaret Thatcher - hailed the late British prime minister on Monday as "great".
"She was a great woman and there was no substitute for her ... She was one of the most exceptionally gifted prime ministers there ever was," Kohl told Reuters TV after news that Thatcher had died at the age of 87.
"In many situations and in confrontations with the economy she stood her ground. You could only speak of her with great respect, even if on some things you were of a different opinion on one point or another," Kohl said in a rare interview at his home in Ludwigshafen, western Germany.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Thatcher opposed German reunification, warning that Kohl was "capable of anything", according to French diplomatic notes published several years ago.
Kohl, 83, who today is frail and wheelchair-bound, was a driving force behind reunification and steered Germany into the euro. Thatcher's combative opposition to European integration antagonised allies in Europe and ultimately helped sow the seeds of her own downfall.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former protege of Kohl, lauded Thatcher's efforts in bringing the Cold War to an end.
"Thatcher recognised the strength of the movements for freedom of eastern Europe early on and stood up for them," Merkel said in a statement. "I will not forget the part she played in overcoming the division of Europe and at the end of the Cold War."
(Reporting by Tilman Blasshofer; Writing by Annika Breidthardt; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)