Sad king symbolised unity for a divided Belgium: Andrew Marshall in Brussels and Phil Davison in Madrid report on the death of a monarch who tried to bridge the divide

Click to follow
THE SORROW of Belgium was on public display yesterday after the death of King Baudouin, who was a symbol of unity for a divided nation.

The black, gold and red tricolours were at half-mast throughout Brussels and crowds gathered at the royal palace. Sombre music played on the radio. The city seemed sunk in gloom. 'We have lost our King, and only now do we realise what we have lost,' said a young woman. The king died about 9.30pm on Saturday in Motril, southern Spain, where he was on holiday.

Baudouin, known as 'the sad king', has left behind a sad country bewildered by the speed at which the linguistic divide between French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speaking Flemings has led to the break-up of Belgium. Parliament only weeks ago approved a structure that splits it into a federal state. King Baudouin had tried to reconcile the two sides, without success. But he was seen by many as the one man who could bridge the divide.

King Baudouin turned the monarchy into a popular, if distant, institution. He was known for his strong moral principles and attachment to Catholicism. In 1990 he abdicated for a day to prevent a constitutional crisis after he had refused to sign a law legalising abortion. 'Does freedom of conscience apply to everyone except the King?' he wrote in a letter to Parliament.

King Baudouin left no children. His wife, Queen Fabiola, had three miscarriages.

He will be succeeded by his brother, Prince Albert of Liege, 59, who had been expected to renounce his right to the throne and pass it to his son, Prince Philippe, 33, a bachelor who had been groomed to be king.

The Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, said: 'We must put ourselves behind (King Baudouin's) constitutional successor, Prince Albert, who is being called to continue his work in the spirit of continuity.'

The King was, like many of the continent's monarchs, a firm supporter of European unity, and had used Belgium's national-day celebrations two weeks ago to call for a stronger Europe. 'I think the country has lost a servant in the true sense of the word, and I have no words for this,' said Willy Claes, the Foreign Minister. The King's death has put more pressure on a country that is running the European Community while facing a currency crisis. An emergency cabinet meeting was held yesterday and another will be held when Mr Dehaene returns from Spain. He flew there to accompany Queen Fabiola on the flight back to Brussels.

Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia interrupted their holiday in Majorca to accompany Queen Fabiola and the body of King Baudouin yesterday from the villa where he died, on the Costa del Sol, to Granada airport. The body was flown to Belgium last night and will be buried in Brussels' St Michel Cathedral on Saturday.

Crowds of Belgian tourists from nearby resorts joined Motril residents to mourn as the cortege left the Villa Astrida, where the royal couple had passed many summers over the past 30 years. The couple had only arrived for their holiday on 22 July.

When the King fell ill on Saturday night, a local heart-and-lung specialist, Carlos Aguado, was called to the villa. But the King died of a heart attack just around the time he and his Spanish- born queen used to enjoy watching the Mediterranean sunset.

Police used to cordon off part of the beach if the royal couple wished to swim but King Baudouin, said to feel uncomfortable at the thought of depriving tourists of a public beach, rarely took the opportunity.

Also in the cortege from Motril to Granada were Javier Solana, Spain's Foreign Minister, Prince Albert, Mr Dehaene, and the Justice Minister, Melchior Wathelet.

Obituary, page 16

(Photographs omitted)