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MONACO (Reuters) - Prince Albert II of Monaco, son of late Hollywood star Grace Kelly, announced his engagement on Wednesday to South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock, ending decades as one of Europe's most eligible bachelors.
Albert, 52, has been linked to a string of beautiful women and has acknowledged fathering two illegitimate children, but he sought to shed his playboy image after succeeding his father Prince Rainier in 2005. He has dated Whittstock since 2006.
"The prince's palace announced on Wednesday, June 23, 2010, the engagement of his Royal Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco with Mademoiselle Charlene Wittstock," a palace statement said. It did not give a date for the wedding.
The last time Monaco celebrated a wedding of its ruling prince was in 1956, when Rainier married Kelly, bringing a huge dose of glamour to the tiny Mediterranean principality.
But the Grimaldi dynasty that has ruled for more than seven centuries is also familiar with tragedy and bad publicity: Kelly died in a 1982 car crash, and her children, Albert, Caroline and Stephanie, regularly made headlines for the wrong reasons.
Once dubbed Dirty Bertie by the tabloid press, Albert in his younger days was photographed accompanying a stream of famous women, such as Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Brooke Shields, Lisa Marie Presley and Kylie Minogue.
But unlike his two sisters, who have a clutch of marriages and seven children between them, Albert never showed any indication of wanting to settle down until he started going out with the blond, elegant Wittstock in 2006.
Rumors occasionally surfaced that they were set to marry, but the pair remained silent about their future until now.
They were last seen together in public at the weekend in Stockholm, when they attended the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria, heir to the Swedish throne.
More camera-shy than his photogenic siblings, Albert once said press intrusion was partly to blame for his prolonged bachelorhood. "Life will not be easy for my future wife," he told Le Figaro daily before he met Wittstock.
"I became accustomed at an early age to the incessant presence of photographers. Some of my girlfriends who have been exposed, even for a very brief time, to this sort of life were not at all pleased," he said.
Palace insiders suggested that his refusal to wed persuaded his father from abdicating in his favor, and Albert only took the throne on the death of the family patriarch.
Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi was born on March 14, 1958 and educated in Monaco and Amherst College in Massachusetts in the United States.
Fluent in English, French, Italian and German, Albert became a roving commercial ambassador for his country's booming business interests for years and also served as head of Monaco's delegation to the United Nations.
Charlene Lynette Wittstock was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in January 1978. The prince's office said that before moving to Monaco, she had been a child-carer.
However, she is more famous for representing South Africa as a swimmer in the 2000 Olympics. Her sporting career was later curtailed by a shoulder injury.
Although Albert has fathered two children, under the succession rules in the Catholic principality only children born within marriage may succeed to the throne.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Peter Graff