MADRID - Adolfo Suarez, the prime minister who led Spain to democracy after decades of dictatorship and became its first elected premier after the death of General Francisco Franco, died Sunday aged 81.
Suarez passed away at Madrid's Cemtro hospital where he was admitted Monday with pneumonia, family spokesman Fermin Urbiola told reporters outside the hospital.
Suarez had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past decade.
His son Adolfo Suarez Illana told reporters on Friday that his father's illness had progressed and his death was "imminent".
Suarez was one of the last surviving players in Spain's historic "transition" -- the delicate dismantling of dictatorship followed by democratic reforms that he and King Juan Carlos helped achieve after Franco died in 1975.
Despite being born the son of a Republican, Suarez became a member of Franco's regime, serving as head of the state broadcaster and a senior leader in the National Movement, a pro-Franco party with fascist roots.
The king, Franco's successor as head of state, named Suarez prime minister in a new government in 1976 at the age of 44, and the following year he won Spain's first democratic elections held after Franco's death.
A charismatic leader admired for his talent for conciliation, Suarez oversaw the legalisation of political parties, including the Communist Party which had been persecuted under Franco, and helped them forge a consensus as they hammered out a constitution, approved in a referendum in 1978.
- 'Freer and fairer country' -
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared three days of national mourning.
"Suarez was the meeting point for the reconciliation between Spaniards," Rajoy, who wore a black suit and tie, said in a televised address.
"His intuition, his skills and his courage were key in creating the freer and fairer country in which we live."
Players wearing black ribbons at Sunday's crucial La Liga clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the capital's Bernabeu stadium held a minute's silence for Suarez.
King Juan Carlos praised the former prime minister as a "loyal friend" in a separate televised address as he sat at his desk which was decorated with a picture of him walking with his arm around Suarez's shoulder.
"Adolfo Suarez was a statesman, a man who put the interests of the whole Spanish nation before personal and party interests," the king added.
Suarez's body will lie in state on Monday in the nation's parliament ahead of a state funeral this week whose exact date has not been announced.
Flags across Spain flew at half mast and television stations carried an image of a tiny black ribbon throughout their broadcasts.
Despite widespread support for Suarez's democratic reforms, in time he became overwhelmed by various perils: splits within his party, Spain's economic hardship, a dissenting military and regions, and armed attacks by the Basque separatist group ETA.
In 1981, two years after being elected for the second time, he resigned unexpectedly. Days later, soldiers took members of parliament hostage in an attempted coup that was defused with the help of Juan Carlos.
Suarez was one of only three members of parliament who did not hide under their benches. He remained in his seat even when coup leader Antonio Tejero seized parliament, gun in hand.
"They ordered us to get down on the floor," he said in a television interview years later. "I was the prime minister and the prime minister should not do that."
Despite his troubled departure from government, Suarez ran for leader again in 1982 at the head of a new centrist party, which later broke apart.
That election was won by Socialist Felipe Gonzalez, opening a new era of reforms.
Gonzalez on Sunday praised Suarez's "capacity for dialogue and compromise" while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the former premier "was an example for the entire European political class".
Suarez withdrew from public life but received the Golden Fleece, Spain's top civil honour, in 2008 from his old friend King Juan Carlos, who also bestowed on him the title Duke of Suarez.
The effects of Alzheimer's meant that by 2005 Suarez could no longer remember being prime minister, Suarez's son said in an interview published in daily newspaper El Mundo in June 2005.