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'He belongs to the ages': Obama, US leaders mourn Mandela's death

President Obama joined lawmakers and former heads of state Thursday in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, calling him one of the "most influential, courageous and profoundly good" people to have ever lived. 

"He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he's gone home," an emotional Obama said, in remarks from the White House. 

Obama added: "He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages." 

Late Thursday the president ordered flags immediately lowered to half staff until Monday evening in honor of the anti-apartheid leader hailed around the world. He also spoke by phone with South African President Jacob Zuma to express his condolences, the White House said.

Mandela died Thursday at age 95. He was South Africa's first black president and one of the world's most beloved statesmen. Obama met with Mandela's family earlier this year when he visited South Africa. But he did not meet with the ailing leader, who was hospitalized throughout the U.S. president's visit. 

His death was announced late Thursday by Zuma. Mandela was remembered in the United States not only for his role in ending apartheid but his "grace" and perseverance in fighting against a system that segregated a society and kept him jailed for nearly three decades. 

Former President George H.W. Bush recalled watching "in wonder as Nelson Mandela had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers following 26 years of wrongful imprisonment -- setting a powerful example of redemption and grace for us all." 

Mandela embodied not only the fight for racial equality but a rare spirit of reconciliation which ultimately earned him the respect of his adversaries, and the awe of millions. He lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration and once traveled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister at the time he was sent to prison who was also the architect of white rule. 

"We will likely not see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said. 

Former President Bill Clinton said the late leader will be remembered as "a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation." 

"He proved that there is freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life's real victories must be shared," Clinton said in a statement. 

Statements poured out of Capitol Hill late Thursday praising Mandela's legacy. 

"Nelson Mandela was an unrelenting voice for democracy and his 'long walk to freedom' showed an enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity," House Speaker John Boehner said. "His perseverance in fighting the apartheid system will continue to inspire future generations." 

Rep. Eliot Engel, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed Obama in describing his impact on the world. 

"While it is hard to believe that he is no longer with us, Mr. Mandela will continue to live through his powerful legacy," he said. "Ages from now, people will remember Nelson Mandela's name and what he did for his country." 

Attorney General Eric Holder said Mandela was "a personal hero" as well as "an extraordinary pioneer and unsurpassed champion for freedom and justice."

Secretary of State John Kerry said he "gave new meaning to courage, character, forgiveness and human dignity."

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.