Image: Ian Smith
John Downing  /  Getty Images file
Ian Smith is seen on Oct. 9, 1965, at a press conference in London while he was Rhodesia's prime minister.
updated 11/20/2007 3:24:40 PM ET 2007-11-20T20:24:40

Ian Smith, Rhodesia's last white prime minister whose attempts to resist black rule dragged the country now known as Zimbabwe into isolation and civil war, has died at age 88.

Smith, who recently suffered a stroke, died at a clinic near Cape Town, South Africa, according to longtime friend Sam Whaley, who was a senator in the former Rhodesia.

Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965. He then served as the prime minister of Rhodesia from 1965 to 1979 during white minority rule. The country failed to gain international recognition, and United Nations economic sanctions were instituted.

He finally bowed to international pressure, and Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won elections in 1980.

To many white Rhodesians, he was "good old Smithy." To most blacks, his rule symbolized the worst of racial oppression.

Smith imprisoned Mugabe, the current president of Zimbabwe, in 1964 for 10 years, calling him a "terrorist" intent on turning the country into a one-party dictatorship.

"We have never had such chaos and corruption in our country," Smith said during a brief return to the political fray in 2000. "What Zimbabweans are looking for is a bit of ordinary honesty and straightforwardness."

Despite their bitter differences, Smith and Mugabe shared one common bond — their deep dislike of Britain, which they saw as a meddling colonial power.

Just as Mugabe accused former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of interfering in Zimbabwe to protect the interests of whites, Smith poured vitriol on the government of the late Harold Wilson for pressing him to hand political power to the black majority.

Whaley, who was a senator in the former Rhodesia and a legal expert for Smith's party, said he had received a phone call from a friend of Smith's stepdaughter, Jean Tholet, in Cape Town about Smith's death.

"He was a man of grit and courage," Whaley said. "I am sure that he is happy that he hasn't had to hold back any more," he said in reference to his final weeks clinging to life.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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