PHNOM PENH, CambodiaNorodom Sihanouk, the revered former king who was a towering figure in Cambodian politics through a half-century of war, genocide and upheaval, died Monday. He was 89.
Sihanouk abdicated the throne in 2004, citing his poor health. He had been getting medical treatment in China since January and had suffered a variety of illnesses, including colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member who also was Sihanouk's assistant, said the former king suffered a heart attack at a Beijing hospital.
"His death was a great loss to Cambodia," Thomico said, adding that Sihanouk had dedicated his life "for the sake of his entire nation, country and for the Cambodian people."
Sihanouk's successor, Norodom Sihamoni, flew with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to Beijing on Monday to retrieve the body, said Col. Chhay Bunna, a senior police officer in charge of security at Phnom Penh's international airport.
State flags flew at half-staff, and Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said an official funeral will be held once the former king's body is repatriated.
In January, Sihanouk requested that he be cremated in the Cambodian and Buddhist tradition, asking that his ashes be put in an urn, preferably made of gold, and placed in a stupa at the country's Royal Palace.
Sihanouk saw Cambodia transform from colony to kingdom, U.S.-backed regime to Khmer Rouge killing field and foreign-occupied land to guerrilla war zone - and finally to a fragile experiment with democracy.
He was a feudal-style monarch who called himself a democrat. He was beloved by his people but was seldom able to deliver the stability they craved through decades of violence.
Born on Oct. 31, 1922, Sihanouk enjoyed a pampered childhood in French colonial Indochina.
In 1941, the French crowned 19-year-old Sihanouk rather than relatives closer in line to the throne, thinking the pudgy, giggling prince would be easy to control. They were the first of many to underestimate him, and by 1953 the French were out.
Two years later, Sihanouk stepped down from the throne, organized a mass political party and steered Cambodia toward uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War.
Sihanouk accepted limited U.S. aid and nurtured relations with Communist China. He was also a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Sihanouk was a ruthless politician, talented dilettante and tireless playboy, caught up in endless, almost childlike enthusiasms.
He made movies, painted, composed music, fielded a palace soccer team and led his own jazz band. His large appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. He married at least five times - some say six - and fathered 14 children.
After 1960, Sihanouk drifted toward the communist camp, seeking assurances from his powerful neighbors, China and Vietnam, that his country's neutrality would be respected.
In 1965, Sihanouk broke off relations with Washington as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War shifted into high gear. But by 1969, worried about increasing Vietnamese communist use of Cambodian soil, he made new overtures to the United States and turned against China.
Sihanouk's top priority was to keep Cambodia out of the war, but he could not. U.S. aircraft bombed Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia with increasing regularity, and his protests were ignored.
Internally, Cambodia was a one-man show. Sihanouk's sharpest critics accused him of running a medieval state as an ancient Khmer ruler reincarnated in Western dress.
"I am Sihanouk," he once said, "and all Cambodians are my children."
Nonetheless, the country was at relative peace and some attempts were made to better the life of the peasants, who adored Sihanouk as a near-deity.
Outsiders saw a country of shimmering temples and emerald green rice fields that seemed a chapter from an Oriental fairy tale. But that face of Cambodia would soon vanish.