WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama on Saturday night called Richard Holbrooke "a towering figure in American foreign policy" and said he is praying for the critically ill diplomat's recovery.
Holbrooke, 69, the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was described as being in stable, but critical condition after undergoing more than 20 hours of surgery for a torn aorta, the large artery that takes blood from the heart.
The veteran diplomat was meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department on Friday when he suddenly collapsed and was taken to George Washington University Hospital a few blocks away. Holbrooke was seen walking under his own power to the department's parking garage with a person from State's medical office.
His family as well as Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been with Holbrooke at the hospital. Clinton visited on Friday night and agaain on Saturday.
"Richard Holbrooke is a towering figure in American foreign policy, a critical member of my Afghanistan and Pakistan team, and a tireless public servant who has won the admiration of the American people and people around the world," Obama said in a statement.
Obama said he had spoken to Holbrooke's wife, Kati, on Saturday "and told her that Michelle and I are praying for Richard."
"We continue to pray for his recovery, and support his family in this difficult time," said the president..
Hospital officials referred all questions about Holbrooke's to the State Department.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the surgery on Holbrooke's torn aorta was completed Saturday morning.
A torn aorta, or aortic dissection, is a condition in which a tear develops in the inner wall of the aorta allowing blood to enter the vessel wall and if not treated quickly can lead to rapid death. As blood enters the wall it reduces blood flow just as if there were a severely bleeding wound, leading to possibly serious complications in the brain and other areas of the body, according to medical experts.
Even if the surgery has stabilized Holbrook's condition, recovery can be expected to take considerable time.
Holbrooke's illness comes just days before the Obama administration is expected next Thursday to roll out the results of its review of the Afghanistan war and to push for Afghan forces to assume a greater role in the fighting. It is a transition in which Holbrooke was expected to play an important part, having made many visits to the region and having developed personal relationships with leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The veteran diplomat is perhaps best known for helping broker the 1995 agreement that ended the war in Bosnia.
He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. He also was U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1993 to 1994 and then assistant secretary of state for European affairs.
Holbrooke's career with the foreign service dates back to his posting in South Vietnam in 1962 and included time as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.