By Chris Scicluna
VALLETTA (Reuters) - Dom Mintoff, Malta's former socialist prime minister and dominant political force for more than half a century, died at his residence near Valletta on Monday, the government said. He was 96.
Mintoff, known for his confrontational style and fiery speeches, oversaw the closure of Britain's military base on the island in 1979 - ending the 200-year-old military link.
The current leader of the labor party Joseph Muscat said on Monday all Maltese had been orphaned by Mintoff's death.
Mintoff was prime minister between 1956 and 1958 and between 1971 and 1984, when he handed over the reins to his picked successor Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.
He was a member of parliament for more than 50 years and held sway over Malta's political scene before and after its independence from Britain.
The son of British Royal Navy cook went on to marry a Briton. But politically, he looked east and at one stage formed strong bonds with Communist China.
Mintoff was also close to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and promoted a policy of non-alignment and neutrality from the superpowers, often drawing the wrath of the West.
The former labor party chief remained a powerful influence after his retirement and brought down a labor government in 1998 after a falling out with then leader Alfred Sant.
He also fiercely but unsuccessfully fought Malta's accession to the European Union in 2004.
The labor party's Joseph Muscat on Monday paid tribute to Mintoff for bringing in a raft of social reforms including pensions, the minimum wage, free schooling and medical service and a children's allowance.
Another central achievement, he said, was enforcing the separation of church and state.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)