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Vitaly Churkin: Russian ambassador to UN dies suddenly in New York

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, has died suddenly in New York.

Churkin would have been 65-years-old on Tuesday.

Mr Churkin had been Russia's envoy at the United Nations since 2006 and was considered Moscow's great champion at the UN.

He had a reputation for an acute wit and sharp repartee, especially with his US and Western counterparts.

He was currently the longest-serving member of the Security Council, the UN's most powerful body.

Among many other issues, he had recently made Russia's views heard on the conflict in close ally Syria, sparring with diplomats from the US and other Western countries over whether to impose sanctions or take action to end the conflict in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been notified of the death, according to state news agency TASS.

"The president was grieved to learn about the death of Vitaly Churkin. The head of state highly estimated Churkin's professionalism and diplomatic talents," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the agency.

Russia's foreign ministry called Mr Churkin an "outstanding" diplomat and expressed condolences to his friends and family.

Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a Facebook post that Mr Churkin was "an extraordinary person. A bright man. We have lost a dear one".

His death, the day before his 65th birthday, stunned officials at the UN's headquarters.

"Our thoughts go to his family, to his friends and to his government," said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq, who heard the news from reporters as it circulated during a daily briefing.

Diplomatic colleagues mourned Mr Churkin as a powerful and passionate voice for his nation, with both a deep knowledge of diplomacy and a large and colourful personality.

Calling Mr Churkin a "diplomatic maestro and deeply caring man", former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said on Twitter that he had done all he could to bridge differences between the US and Russia.

French UN ambassador Francois Delattre said he and Mr Churkin had "always worked together in a spirit of mutual respect and personal friendship", despite their divides.

One of Mr Delattre's predecessors, Gerard Araud, now French ambassador to the US, remembered Mr Churkin as "abrasive, funny and technically impeccable".

Britain's UN ambassador Matthew Rycroft tweeted that he was "absolutely devastated" to hear of the death of Mr Churkin, "a diplomatic giant and wonderful character".

Mr Churkin was previously ambassador at large and earlier served as the foreign ministry spokesman.

He had a doctorate in history and was a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and had been a child actor in what was then the Soviet Union.

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