Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president who reconciled South Africa after the end of apartheid, died yesterday at the age of 95 following a long illness.

An icon of peace and the struggle against racial oppression, during Nelson Mandela's 27 years 6 months and 6 days behind bars, he became the world's most famous political prisoner, setting the unenviable world record for longest period of incarceration for a future head of state.

Following his release from prison in 1990, he went on to guide his country to democracy, bringing an end to white minority rule and securing black people the right to vote.

Mandela was first sent to the infamous Robben Island prison for a brief period in 1962 for minor political offences, then returned two years later for a life sentence after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.

Aged 46 when he began his jail term, Mandela was sentenced to years of hard labour, breaking rocks in a limestone quarry.

Chained in rows of four, prisoners worked eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, with the unforgiving glare of the sun on the white rocks, combined with the dust, causing permanent damage to Mandela's eyes.

Despite the harsh conditions, Mandela did not direct his frustrations at his immediate captors.

"He was always friendly, polite and helpful," Christo Brand, a prison warder who was with Mandela from 1978 until his release in 1990, told Reuters in a recent interview.

"He became like a father to me. If I needed some help and assistance with something, he was always there for me," said Brand.

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom", the majority of which was written in secret in his cell on the island, Mandela recalled the loneliness and isolation felt by inmates.

"Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system," he wrote.

"Journeying to Robben Island was like going to another country, its isolation made it not simply another prison but a world of its own, far removed from the one we had come from."

In March 1982, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, located in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai, and then on to Victor Verster Prison in 1989 before his eventual release two years later.

Despite his years of incarceration, he offered a message of reconciliation, not vengeance following his release, inspiring the world by negotiating a peaceful end to segregation and urging forgiveness for the white government that imprisoned him.

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," Mandela said after he was freed.

Twelve months after gaining his freedom, he was elected president of the African National Congress party with the chief aim of beginning a new, multi-racial democracy for South Africa.

Nelson Mandela delivers a speech during the International tribute to Free South Africa concert at London's Wembley Stadium in 1990, two months after his release from prison

In 1993, Mandela and the then South African President FW De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to bring stability to the country.

The Nobel Committee said both men had made "a brilliant contribution to peace".

Accepting the award, Mr Mandela said: "We will do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world."

The following year, for the first time in South Africa's history, people from all races voted in democratic elections. The ANC won and Mr Mandela became president. He told crowds at his inauguration on 10 May, 1994: "Let freedom reign, God bless Africa!"

Among the many world leaders to pay tribute last night was US President Barack Obama, who called Mandela an "extraordinary man" whose journey from prisoner to president had inspired the world, as well as him personally.

"He achieved more than can be expected of any man - and today he's gone home," said President Obama.

"We've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth."

"He no longer belongs to us - he belongs to the ages."