Iñaki Azkuna, the mayor of this northern Spanish city since 1999, died Thursday at his home after a long battle with cancer, the municipal government said. He was 71.

One of the driving forces behind the transformation of Bilbao, Azkuna died surrounded by "his family," city hall reported in a brief communique.

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003.

Azkuna was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 23 after a fall. He had participated in his last public event 10 days earlier.

On March 2, Spain's King Juan Carlos visited him in his home after it was confirmed that Azkuna would not attend the inauguration of the economic forum at the Guggenheim Museum, an iconic venue in Bilbao's transformation.

Azkuna was the son of a metalworker and a seamstress.

After graduating from medical school in Salamanca, he went to France to work as a researcher for the University of Paris's Broussais Hospital and it was there that he met the woman who would become his wife, Anabella Dominguez.

In 1973, Azkuna returned to Bilbao to teach medicine at the University of the Basque Country and began working at the Cruces Hospital in Barakaldo.

In 1981, he was named director general of the largest hospital in the Basque region.

He became the health advisor to the regional Basque government in February 1991 and served in that post until April 1999, when he was elected mayor of Bilbao.

Two days after winning re-election in 2003, Azkuna revealed that he was suffering from prostate cancer, a fact that did not prevent him from carrying out his mayoral duties or from being re-elected twice more, in 2007 and 2011.

He received many outstanding awards, both honoring him individually and in the name of the city, including the "World's Best Mayor 2012" prize presented by the City Mayors Foundation.

His wife died of cancer in September 2012. EFE