updated 3/14/2006 3:37:21 AM ET 2006-03-14T08:37:21

Former President Lennart Meri, a key figure in Estonia’s independence movement during the Soviet occupation, has died. He was 76.

Meri, a statesman, writer and filmmaker who was president of Estonia from 1992 to 2001, died overnight at a hospital in Tallinn after a long illness, the presidential office said Tuesday.

Born in Tallinn on March 29, 1929, Meri and his family were deported to Siberia after the Soviet invasion of Estonia during World War II. The family survived and returned to Estonia, where Meri started working as a writer and dramatist.

He later became one of the leaders of the Baltic country’s independence movement and was Estonia’s first president after the Soviet collapse.

“The President of the Republic and the Office of the President express deep condolences to the family and relatives of President Meri,” the statement said.

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