ISTANBUL - Former foreign minister Ismail Cem, an architect of Turkey's improved ties with Greece and one of its most prominent social democrats, died here Wednesday at the age of 67, his family said.

He had recently returned to Turkey from the United States after several months of treatement for lung cancer.

Cem died at 9:50 am (0750 GMT) at the Istanbul Surgical Hospital where he was taken in December for a lung infection, hospital officials told the Anatolia news agency.

Respected across the political spectrum at home and overseas, Cem was foreign minister under two successive governments from 1997 to 2002.

A gentlemanly, soft-spoken man, the Western-educated Cem gave the impression of remaining aloof to the rough-and-tumble of Turkish politics, but his cheerful appearance concealed a determined personality and a tough negotiator.

In December 1999, the pro-European Cem saw Turkey granted candidacy for EU membership after a lengthy period of frosty ties over the bloc's previous refusal to respond to Ankara's application.

But in an interview in October, he said he was deeply disappointed with the widespread hostility in Europe to Turkey's accession, saying he did not believe his country would ever join the bloc.

"Some in the EU... are still seeking revenge for history 500 years old," he told the daily Milliyet, referring to the Ottoman presence in Europe.

In 1999, Cem spearheaded an unprecedented rapprochement with neighbour and rival Greece, capitalising on an unexpected show of solidarity the two nations displayed after deadly earthquakes hit the two countries a few weeks apart.

A photograph widely reproduced at the time showed Cem and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, singing and dancing on the Greek island of Samos.

Born to an upper crust Istanbul family in 1940, Cem began a career as a journalist while in his 20s after a law education in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Paris.

He came to national attention in 1974 when he was appointed head of the state broadcasting company TRT at the age of 34 and brightened up notoriously conservative radio and television broadcasts with a reformist administration he set up.

Ousted from his post after a change of government, he published the left-leaning daily Politika, which, though now defunct, was one of the most influential newspapers of its day.

He was elected to parliament in 1987 from the Social Democratic People's Party and served as culture minister in a 1995 coalition government.

The same year, he joined the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of the late prime minister Bulent Ecevit, under whose banner he was reelected to parliament from the central province of Kayseri, his ancestral home, in December 1995.

He remains the only leftist legislator to have been elected from the conservative stronghold.

In 1997, he was named foreign minister in a minority coalition headed by the center-right Motherland Party.

He retained his post after the April 1999 elections from which the DSP came out ahead to cobble together a three-party coalition.

Cem resigned in June 2002 amid a severe political crisis triggered by disagreement between coalition partners over reforms demanded by the EU and Ecevit's long absence from office due to bad health.

He set up a new political group, the New Turkey Party, but failed to obtain any parliamentary seats in the November 2002 election that propelled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party to power.

He was the author of 14 books and served as interim president of the Council of Europe from 1989 to 1991, and again between 1993 and 1995.

Cem, who is survived by his wife Elcin, a son and a daughter, will be buried in Istanbul on Friday.

01/24/2007 10:28 GMT

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