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1970s Polish leader Gierek dies at 88

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WARSAW, Poland — Edward Gierek, the communist ruler who pushed for reform during the 1970s but was forced from power over mounting debt and strikes, has died. He was 88.

Gierek died Sunday morning at a hospital in the southern city of Cieszyn of a lung infection stemming from his years as a miner, said Andrzej Szarawarski, head of the Democratic Left Alliance in Katowice.

Gierek, who was born in Porabka, near Katowice, first became active in the communist movement as a young miner living in France and Belgium.

After more than 20 years abroad, he returned to Poland in 1948 to join the communist Polish United Workers' Party, becoming party leader in the mining region of Katowice the following year. In 1956, he joined the ruling national Politburo.

Gierek became party chief in 1970, promising more openness to the West and internal reform. He succeeded Wladyslaw Gomulka, who was forced out after security forces opened fire on Polish workers in the Baltic cities of Gdansk and Gdynia, killing scores of them.

Awakening hopes for a better standard of living, Gierek launched a program to modernize outdated Polish industry. He encouraged foreign investment and took multibillion-dollar credits from the West.

But much of the money was squandered in ill-fated projects. Rising prices, deteriorating living standards and human-rights violations sparked dissatisfaction and strikes in 1976 and in 1980.

Gierek was forced to resign in the fall of 1980 after the anti-communist protests that gave birth to Solidarity, the old Soviet bloc's first independent labor federation.

Gierek's borrowing, meanwhile, saddled Poland with huge debts that amounted to more than $40 billion by the time the communists were toppled in 1989 and still have not been paid off.

Communist leaders blamed Gierek for Poland's economic woes and revoked his party membership.

Gierek was briefly jailed after his successor, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law in 1981.

In 1990, after the fall of communism, Gierek's recollections of the tumultuous 1970s in "The Aborted Decade" topped Polish best-seller lists.

Gierek, who had been living in the southern mountain resort of Ustron after his retirement from politics, is survived by his wife, Stanislawa, and two sons. His funeral was scheduled for Friday in Sosnowiec, near Katowice.