OSLO, Norway -- Finland's ex-president Martti Ahtisaari won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to build a lasting peace from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Middle East.
The award however drew some criticism for not highlighting China's crackdown in Tibet and on human rights activists.
Speculation had focused on using the prize to honor the 60th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights by singling out dissidents in China, Russia and Vietnam, overshadowed the decision.
"It is an opportunity missed to change the world for the better by encouraging reform in China," said Edward McMillan-Scott, a British member of the European Parliament and founder of its Democracy and Human Rights Instrument.
He had nominated Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia for the prestigious prize, two of the 197 nominations that were received by the Feb. 1 deadline.
"I am aware that there was intense diplomatic pressure from Beijing after widespread reports -- welcomed worldwide -- that Chinese dissidents were being nominated," McMillan-Scott said.
On Tuesday, China's foreign ministry suggested that it hopes Chinese human rights activists will not win this year's Nobel Peace Prize, saying the award should go to the "right people."
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it honored Ahtisaari for important efforts over more than three decades to resolve international conflicts, a return to form for the prize which has skewed toward global warming and even economics.
"These efforts have contributed to a more peaceful world and to 'fraternity between nations' in Alfred Nobel's spirit," the committee said in announcing the prize.
By selecting Ahtisaari, 71, for the prize, the Nobel committee returned its focus to traditional peace work after tapping climate campaigner Al Gore and the U.N. panel on climate change last year.
"He is a world champion when it comes to peace and he never gives up," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel awards committee.
The award, he said, was in line with recent Nobels to other peace mediators, notably Jimmy Carter in 2002 and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001.
Ahtisaari told AP Television News that while winning the prize would help his future mediation work, he is looking to other challenges, too, particularly youth unemployment worldwide.
But he also conceded that the decades of work have taken a toll.
"I have to start realizing that I am 71" and maybe it's time to stop "traveling 200 days a year outside Finland."
The secretive five-member committee said Ahtisaari's work across the world -- Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East -- proved that such efforts can have a profound effect on peace processes.
"Through his untiring efforts and good results, he has shown what role mediation of various kinds can play in the resolution of international conflicts," the committee said in announcing the 10 million kronor (US$1.4 million) prize.
"For the past 20 years, he has figured prominently in endeavors to resolve several serious and long-lasting conflicts," the citation said, mentioning his work in conflicts from Namibia to Aceh, Indonesia, Kosovo and Iraq.
Ahtisaari had been mentioned in speculation as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate since 2005, just after he negotiated an end to a conflict in Indonesia that began more than 140 years ago, bringing together the Indonesian government and the leaders of the separatist guerrilla movement in Aceh. He initiated and mediated peace talks in Finland, and a peace agreement was signed in Helsinki.
"He has also made constructive contributions to the resolution of conflicts in Northern Ireland, in Central Asia, and on the Horn of Africa," the citation said.
Speaking to NRK Norwegian TV, Ahtisaari said he "was very pleased and grateful" to receive the prize.
Asked what work he considered the most important, Ahtisaari, the first Finn to win the prize, said that "of course Namibia is absolutely the most important because it took such a long time." He also singled out his work in Kosovo and Aceh.
Ahtisaari was a senior Finnish diplomat when in 1977 he was named the U.N. envoy for Namibia, where guerrillas were battling South African apartheid rule. He later rose to undersecretary-general, and in 1988 was dispatched to Namibia to lead 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers during its transition to independence.
Ahtisaari said he hoped the prize would make it easier to attract financing for his peace work.
"There are always many possibilities. I really hope now that I receive the prize that it makes it easier to finance the organizations that I chair," he said. "It's very important to be able to act properly, you need financing and you never have enough."
Ahtisaari has had a broad career in politics and peacemaking.
A primary school teacher who joined Finland's Foreign Ministry in 1965, he spent 20 years abroad, first as ambassador to Tanzania and then to the United Nations in New York.
In 1994, Ahtisaari accepted the presidential candidacy of Finland's Social Democratic Party and won the election. He did not seek re-election in 2000 and has since worked on international peace efforts.
In 2007, Ahtisaari's office -- Crisis Management Initiative -- started secret meetings in Finland between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite groups to agree on a road map to peace. Those talks, based on the format of peacemaking efforts in South Africa and Northern Ireland, included 16 delegates from the feuding groups. They "agreed to consult further" and begin reconciliation talks.
"He managed to get 36 senior Iraqis to Helsinki in April 2008, and is now working on a next meeting in Baghdad," Mjoes said of the efforts.
Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic who was part of the Acehnese delegation during the Indonesia peace talks said Ahtisaari started off "from a very naive position. He was, by definition, pro-Indonesia, supporting the integrity of the state and dismissing Aceh's insistence on independence."
The Acehnese vehemently criticized Ahtisaari's position. But Kingsbury, in a telephone interview from Australia, said he "helped broker an agreement between the two parties that has proven to be sustainable."
Ahtisaari was chairman of the Bosnia-Herzegovina working group in the international peace conference on former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993, and was special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on former Yugoslavia in 1993.
Serbia bitterly rejected his attempts to forge a compromise settlement on Kosovo, which declared independence in February, but his blueprint forms the essence of Kosovo's constitution.
Vojislav Kostunica -- who led Serbia's government as prime minister during the Kosovo talks -- saw the award as political and a sign of further pressure on Serbia to give up Kosovo.
"Serbia must fight for Kosovo even more firmly and strongly," he said.
Ahtisaari's plan also laid down the guidelines for the deployment of a European Union police force in Kosovo and other key aspects of the way today's Kosovo is run day to day.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the Nobel selection as "the right decision for the right man."
"We proclaimed independence of Kosovo in accordance with the document of President Ahtisaari and Kosovo appreciates very much" that he won, Thaci told the AP.
The peace prize is presented in Oslo. Nobel prizes for medicine, chemistry, physics and economics are handed out in Stockholm, Sweden. The ceremonies are always on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.