(Reuters) - Nelson Mandela was hailed on Thursday as a "hero of our time" as tributes poured in from world leaders on the death of the man who led the triumphant fight against apartheid in South Africa and became that country's first black president.
"A great light has gone out in the world," British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote on Twitter. "Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time."
Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, said Mandela "achieved more than could be expected of any man.
"Today he's gone home, and we've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth," Obama said at the White House.
South African President Jacob Zuma, announcing that Mandela died at his Johannesburg home on Thursday after a prolonged lung infection, said, "Our people have lost a father.
"Although we knew this day was going to come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, passion and humanity earned him their love," Zuma added.
Mandela emerged from 27 years in apartheid prisons to help guide South Africa to democracy, becoming one of the world's most respected and loved political figures.
He was elected president in landmark all-race elections in 1994 and retired in 1999.
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, praised him "as a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did.
"This emphasis on reconciliation was his greatest legacy," de Klerk told CNN.
Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president during Mandela's time in office, said history would remember the former South African leader "as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation. We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life."
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who was in office when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, said: "As president, I watched in wonder as Nelson Mandela had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers following 26 years of wrongful imprisonment - setting a powerful example of redemption and grace for us all."
The U.N. Security Council was in session when the ambassadors received the news of Mandela's death. They stopped their meeting and stood for a minute's silence.
"Nelson Mandela was a giant for justice and a down-to-earth human inspiration," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters. "Nelson Mandela showed what is possible for our world and within each one of us if we believe, dream and work together for justice and humanity."
French President Francois Hollande said: "Nelson Mandela made history. That of South Africa and the whole world.
"Nelson Mandela's message will not disappear. It will continue to inspire fighters for freedom, and to give confidence to peoples in the defense of just causes and universal rights," Hollande said in a statement.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that "more than anyone else, Nelson Mandela inspired my generation and our world."
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called Mandela "the biggest personality of the 20th century. Mandela conducted with passion and intelligence one of the most important processes of human emancipation in contemporary history - the end of Apartheid in South Africa."
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said Mandela was "one of the most honorable figures of our time ... a man of vision, a freedom fighter who rejected violence."
"Today a great freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela has died, one of the world's most important symbols of freedom," said Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior official of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group, calling Mandela "one of the biggest supporters of our cause."
Writing by Peter Cooney in Washington; Contributions from Reuters bureaux around the world; Editing by Jim Loney