A Chilean court has stripped former military leader Augusto Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution.
Human rights groups say Pinochet's regime killed thousands
The surprise move paves the way for his trial on charges of human rights abuses during his 1973-1990 rule.
Unlike previous cases, the latest lawsuit against Gen Pinochet refers to what was known as Operation Condor.
This was a co-ordinated campaign by the Latin American military governments of the 1970s and 1980s to crack down on their suspected opponents.
Previous attempts to prosecute General Pinochet in Chile have been dismissed on medical grounds, with judges persuaded that he is suffering from dementia.
His lawyers are expected to make a similar argument when they appeal against the ruling at the Supreme Court within the month.
The court voted 14-9 to lift the immunity the 88-year-old enjoys as former president.
The BBC's Clinton Porteous in the Chilean capital Santiago says the decision came as a big surprise, provoking gasps - and cheers - in the courtroom.
He adds that a lengthy interview given by Gen Pinochet to a US television station might have persuaded judges that he was not mentally unfit to stand trial.
Prosecution lawyer Francisco Bravo said: "This ruling makes the relatives of the victims and the
whole Chilean society again trust Chile's justice."
Lorena Pizarro, head of an association of the relatives of
people who disappeared during Gen Pinochet's rule, said: "We are happy now, but we remain alert because the next step must be for the dictator to go to jail and pay for all the crimes of which he is responsible."
In 1998, Gen Pinochet was arrested in Britain after Spain requested his extradition on torture charges.
He was eventually allowed home in 2000 after he was adjudged too ill to stand trial.