(Adds Greek defence minister comment)
ISTANBUL, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, whose documentaries and books helped shape many Turks' understanding of their recent tumultuous history, died in Istanbul on Thursday at the age of 71.
Birand suffered cardiac arrest due to complications while undergoing surgery to replace a gallbladder stent, according to the Hurriyet Daily News, where he worked. He had been battling cancer, for which he had surgery in 2011.
In a career spanning almost 50 years, Birand interviewed international leaders from Bill Clinton to Francois Mitterrand to Saddam Hussein. He worked mainly as a newspaper columnist and nightly news anchorman, including at CNN Turk, owned by Istanbul-based Dogan Yayin Holding.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whom Birand interviewed often, described him as "professional and passionate." A devout Muslim, Erdogan said he had prayed for Birand when he underwent cancer surgery.
His documentary films about the 1960 and 1980 military coups helped define those watershed moments in the public record.
In October he told a parliamentary commission investigating Turkey's coups that he and other members of the media had tacitly supported such military interventions.
His book "30 Hot Days" was an insider-like account of the manoeuvring by Britain, the United States, Turkey and Greece that followed Turkey's 1974 invasion of Cyprus.
Turkey still keeps 30,000 or more troops on the eastern Mediterranean island and backs a small Turkish Cypriot administration there, while the rest of the world considers Greek Cypriots the only legitimate authority for the island.
Greek Defence Minister Panos Panagiotopoulos, a former journalist, said Birand had become a friend and that he always calmly debated his differences of opinion calmly, even over the often frosty relationship between Greece and Turkey.
"He stood apart for his great journalistic skill, his erudition and his deep interest on Greek-Turkish issues," Panagiotopoulos said. "His loss leaves a great void in international journalism." (Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou; Writing by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Mark Heinrich)