(CNN) -- Rauf Denktas, the first president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, died Friday in Nicosia after a long illness, the self-declared republic's current leader announced.
Denktas, 87, was instrumental in the independence of Turkish Cyprus, which, outside of Turkey, is not recognized internationally.
He became its first president in 1983 and was re-elected in 1985, 1990, 1995 and 2000.
"Our sorrow is huge ... and it will be very hard for us," said his son, Serdar Denktas. "We will try to overcome this sorrow with respect to his memory and with patience. ... He left us, Turkish Cypriots, and people of Anatolia as orphans, but he met with heroes who made this land a nation."
Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup, engineered by Greece.
The island remains divided despite years of efforts to resolve the deadlock. The southern part of the island joined the European Union on its own after unity efforts failed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his condolences to the family and his supporters.
"Mr. Denktas was a long-serving and historic Turkish Cypriot leader with whom the United Nations had a long relationship in the framework of U.N.-facilitated talks for the reunification of Cyprus and related to its peacekeeping responsibilities on the island," a statement from Ban's spokesperson said.
Denktas was born in Baf, Cyprus, in 1924 and was educated in London. The lawyer eventually became active in political affairs.
Outside of politics, Denktas was known for his photography, mostly of nature, and for his writings.