Sierra Leone's former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, widely credited with returning peace to the shattered west African nation after years of brutal civil war, died on Thursday aged 82.

Kabbah, who led the country during an 11-year conflict in which thousands had their limbs hacked off and 120,000 people were killed, was at home when he was pronounced dead, said John Benjamin, a family friend and former chairman of Kabbah's party.

The government of President Ernest Bai Koroma led tributes to Kabbah, describing him as "one of the pillars of democracy" in the country.

"He will go down in history as one of the leaders who stood tall in ensuring that he shook hands with people that were rejected by the majority of Sierra Leoneans during the war," government spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay told reporters.

"If we are now enjoying peace and stability in Sierra Leone, there is no way president Kabbah could be dissociated from that."

Bayraytay said Koroma would cut short a visit to Congo-Brazzaville to return to Freetown on Friday and pay his respects.

Kabbah was praised for launching a disarmament programme that led to the official end of the war in January 2002 with the help of a United Nations peacekeeping force and British military trainers.

He was also praised for maintaining stability until he stepped down in 2007, although his presidency was also marked by criticism of his failure to lift what was then the world's second poorest country out of poverty.

The cause of his death was not immediately clear although he had been suffering high blood pressure and had been ill for some time, local media reported, with friends and family making several recent visits to his bedside.

Born in February 1932 to a Muslim family in eastern Sierra Leone, Kabbah received a Christian education and married a Catholic, who died in 1998.

After studying human sciences in Britain, he joined the civil service in 1959.

After the SLPP was defeated in elections in 1968, Kabbah lost his job and all of his property was confiscated. He then left for Britain where he studied law and became a jurist.

In 1970, he joined the United Nations Development Programme and for the next 22 years worked in the United States, Lesotho, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

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