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Wednesday, November 25, 1998 Published at 01:18 GMT

World: Americas

Argentina baby theft arrest

Protesters call for life imprisonment for the dictators

A former Argentinian military ruler has been arrested in connection with the kidnapping of newborn babies from jailed political dissidents during the dictatorship years.

A judge ordered the detention of Emilio Massera after a hearing in Buenos Aires regarding the abduction of two children during the country's ''dirty war''.

[ image: Mr Massera denies stealing babies]
Mr Massera denies stealing babies
It is estimated between 200 and 400 babies were taken from their mothers and given to military and police couples under the regime in the 1970s and 1980s.

The accusations are similar to those against Jorge Videla, the former army lieutenant general who headed the junta with Mr Massera.

Mr Videla is currently under house arrest in connection with the alleged theft of four babies.

As chief of the military, Mr Videla had final authority over death squads that waged a "dirty war" of torture and murder against political opponents.

Mr Massera, as the head of the navy, was responsible for the junta's most notorious torture centre, the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA).

Both men were sentenced to life in 1985 for human rights abuses, but were pardoned in 1990 by President Carlos Menem.

However, the amnesty does not cover the kidnapping of children.

'Babies' mothers were slain'

The case against Mr Massera involves the children of Patricia Roisinblit and Cecilia Vinas, two women who disappeared in 1976 from the Buenos Aires naval facility.

[ image: Jorge Videla is under house arrest]
Jorge Videla is under house arrest
Cecilia Vinas' son was eventually raised by Jorge Vildoza, one of Mr Massera's chief assistants, until the son took a DNA test when he was 20 that helped reveal his real parents.

His biological father, Reynaldo Penin, was also among the disappeared.

The government says around 9,000 Argentines disappeared during the military regime's war on leftists and dissidents. Human rights groups say the figure is closer to 30,000.

Witnesses testified how pregnant prisoners at the ESMA were induced into giving birth.

Their babies were taken away and brought up by childless military couples. The mothers were usually killed, it is alleged.

They were reportedly dumped into the sea on regular "death flights," or shot and incinerated in an oven or buried under a sports field.

Mr Massera, 73, is to appear in court next week in a separate case involving other children born to parents in captivity.

He has denied the allegations and his lawyer Miguel Arce Aggeo plans to appeal.

Opposing groups of Massera supporters and protesters gathered outside the hearing.

Leftists held up photographs of the disappeared and called for Mr Massera to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Link to General Pinochet case

The ruling by the Argentinian judge comes a day before the British House of Lords is to rule on the fate of Chile's former dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

Mr Massera is being sought by the same Spanish judge who requested General Pinochet's arrest for the murder of Spaniards by South American dictatorships.

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