MADRID - Former prime minister Adolfo Suarez, who steered Spain through one of the most turbulent periods in its political history after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, died on Sunday at the age of 81, state television reported.

Suarez, was hospitalized on Monday with a respiratory infection. He had had Alzheimer's disease for many years.

He was widely credited with building bridges between the "two Spains" after Franco died in 1975 and also standing up to an attempted military coup.

After Franco's death, King Juan Carlos called on Suarez, a young Franquista minister, to try to unite the two factions who were still in a sense fighting the 1936-1939 civil war, and were in many ways further apart than ever after nearly 40 years of fascism exiled thousands of left-wingers.

At the time, his Franquista colleagues called him a turncoat and the main opposition Socialists accused him of opportunism. Most Spaniards now view him as a great statesman who enabled a deeply divided nation to build a new democracy.

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