East German leader Erich Honecker was stripped of power today, ending 18 years of iron-fisted rule as the government grapples with growing public demands for a freer society.
State news media said the Communist Party hierarchy replaced its 77-year-old leader with Egon Krenz, a Honecker protege and the youngest member of the ruling Politburo.
Honecker, who directed the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, will also be relieved of his largely ceremonial post as head of state and as chief of the military, the government-run news agency ADN said.
ADN said Krenz, 52, in charge of security issues and government-run youth groups, had already taken over as the party chief and will be recommended for the posts as military chief and head of state.
The latter two require the approval of the nation's Parliament, and that is guaranteed by the strong central control of the government.
Krenz, like Honecker, is considered a Communist hard-liner. However, he signaled a softer stance when he reportedly urged police to stop their harsh crackdown on the thousands of people who have been staging protests in recent weeks.
Two other key members of the ruling Politburo lost their positions.
Politburo member Joachim Herrmann, 60, who was in charge of the nation's media, and Guenter Mittag, 63, the architect of East Germany's economic policy, "were relieved of their functions," ADN reported.
ADN said both men had also lost their posts on the Communist Party's 163-member Central Committee and 21-member Politburo, and Mittag will be relieved of his duties as deputy head of state.
The move apparently was an attempt to placate growing public demands for a freer press and economic reforms.
The change in leadership comes as East Germany is still reeling from the exodus in recent months of tens of thousands of its citizens seeking better wages and more freedom in the West. The flight has been followed by public dissent unprecedented in this Communist country.
In Washington, President Bush said Krenz's rise to power was unlikely to signal fundamental change.
"Whether that reflects a change in East-West relations, I don't think so," he said. "Mr. Krenz has been very much in accord with the policies of Honecker. So it's too early to say."
In Bonn, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl welcomed the leadership change and said he hoped Krenz will "make the way free" for a better life for East Germans.
"We hope that in the interest of our countrymen that the reform process that has been so sympathetically received in Poland and Hungary and also in the Soviet Union will finally get its chance in East Germany as well," Kohl told reporters.
ADN said Honecker asked to be relieved of his official duties for "health reasons." Honecker has reportedly been in ill health following a gallbladder operation in August.
But Honecker had been under pressure to resign after a wave of protests swept the country.