Norodom Sihanouk, 89, the revered and often mercurial former king and independence hero who helped navigate Cambodia through a half-century of war, genocide, and upheaval, died Monday in Beijing.

King Sihanouk had been in China since January to receive medical treatment for a variety of illnesses he had suffered in recent years, including colon cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member, said the former king suffered a heart attack at a Beijing hospital and died before dawn Monday.

Throughout a life of shifting loyalties and sometimes exile, King Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from U.S.-backed regime to U.S. bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today - a fragile experiment in democracy.

First crowned king by the French in 1941 at age 18, King Sihanouk ruled as a feudal-style absolute monarch, but called himself a democrat. He was a cunning political survivor and a colorfully eccentric playboy with a passion for film directing, a man who sang love songs at elaborate state dinners, brought his French poodle to peace talks, and charmed such foreign dignitaries as Jacqueline Kennedy.

When the murderous Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, he was reviled as a collaborator. Yet he himself ended up as their prisoner and lost five of his children to the regime. Later, in the 1990s - after a U.N.-brokered deal to end Cambodia's long civil war - he recast himself as a peacemaker and constitutional monarch.

"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."

- AP