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Former South Vietnam leader Nguyen Cao Ky dies in Kuala Lumpur

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Nguyen Cao Ky, the flamboyant former air force general who ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist for two years during the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 80.

Ky died at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he was being treated for a respiratory complication, his nephew in Southern California told The Associated Press.

“He was in good health, but in the last couple of weeks he had been weak,” Peter Phan said. He said Ky split his time between his home in California and Vietnam.

One of Ky's daughters, a prominent Vietnamese-American entertainer, told the AP in an e-mail message that she was flying from Los Angeles to Malaysia to find out the exact cause of death.

One of his nation's most colorful leaders, Ky served as prime minister of U.S.-backed South Vietnam in the mid-1960s. He had been commander of South Vietnam's air force when he assumed the post in 1965, the same year U.S. involvement in the war escalated.

He was known as a playboy partial to purple scarves, chic night clubs and beautiful women. In power during some of the war's most tumultuous times, he was a low-key but sometimes ruthless leader.

“It's true that I did have absolute power when I was made premier,” he said in a 1989 Associated Press interview. “You may recall there was no congressional body in South Vietnam at that time. For more than two years, my word was the absolute law.”

From 1967 to 1971, he was vice president under his frequent rival, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu.

When Thieu's government in Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, Ky fled by piloting a helicopter to a U.S. Navy ship. He and his family eventually settled in the United States, where he led a quiet life largely away from politics. He made headlines in 2004 when he made a controversial visit back to his homeland, praising the communists, his former enemies.

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