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Romania's former King Michael dies in Switzerland at age of 96

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s former King Michael, who played a part in ousting a Nazi-backed leader during World War Two but was subsequently forced into exile by a Communist takeover, died in Switzerland on Tuesday at the age of 96, the Royal House said.

FILE PHOTO - Romania's former King Michael I leaves the Romanian Atheneum during the celebrations of his and Queen Ana's 60th wedding anniversary in Bucharest June 10, 2008. REUTERS/Mihai Barbu/File Photo

Born in 1921 in the Carpathian mountains, Michael was one of Europe’s last surviving wartime heads of state who spent decades in exile during the Cold War, withdrawing from public life in 2016 because of severe illness.

A descendant of the German Hohenzollern dynasty and a cousin of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Michael underwent surgery for leukaemia and cancer and died at his residence in Aubonne on lake Geneva, though his entourage did not give a cause of death.

“His Majesty King Michael I ceased life today at 1 p.m Romanian time at his private residence in Switzerland,” the Royal House said in a statement.

His body will lie in state in his Carpathian mountains’ Peles castle and later in Bucharest before his burial in the city of Curtea de Arges.

The king, while only in his early 20s, played a major part in switching Romania away from a wartime alliance with the Nazis, participating in a 1944 coup that overthrew the fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu. Romania then broke with Nazi Germany and switched to the Allied side.

But he was forced to abdicate in 1947 after the Communist takeover. He was stripped of his citizenship and forced to live in exile in Switzerland for decades.

After communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed in 1989, politicians, fearing a surge of support for Michael in the country, blocked his first few attempted visits after decades of exile in Switzerland, Britain and the United States.

In the early 1990s, with the Cold War over, the government sent tanks to stop him from touring Romania.

Relations improved and he finally returned to Romania in 1992 and regained citizenship in 1997 after then reformist President Emil Constantinescu took over from the Moscow-educated former communist Ion Iliescu.

But while Michael enjoyed some popularity a solid movement to restore the monarchy in Romania never took off.

President Klaus Iohannis announced on Tuesday that a day of mourning would be called, telling reporters: “King Michael marked Romania’s history in big letters.”

Editing by Richard Balmforth