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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 December 2006, 18:01 GMT
Obituary: Augusto Pinochet
General Augusto Pinochet in military uniform
Saviour of Chile or remorseless murderer?

General Augusto Pinochet led Chile's armed forces in a dramatic coup against Salvador Allende's democratically elected Marxist government. The violence of the uprising and the oppression that followed shook the world.

In September 1973, thousands of so-called subversives were rounded up in Santiago's national football stadium. Some of them were executed.

General Pinochet emerged from behind his dark glasses to lead the country. Before long, parliament was suspended and elections were banned.

As political opposition was crushed, riots, arrests and torture became commonplace. Thousands of people disappeared. Throughout, General Pinochet claimed he was saving Chile from communism.

Military coup

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born in 1915, the eldest of six children. Following a military education, he joined the army at 18.

Pinochet, in sunglasses, assumes power in 1973
Pinochet assumed power in 1973
By 1969 he was its chief of staff, and in 1973 was made a general and became commander-in-chief of Chile's armed forces.

Chile's Marxist President, Salvador Allende, had then been in power nearly three years. Political strife, rocketing inflation and general economic chaos resulted in an abortive military coup in June 1973.

Two months later, Allende appointed Pinochet commander-in-chief, believing he could rely on him. But in September, Pinochet told Allende to resign or face military action.

Allende refused and was found dead when troops entered the presidential palace. His widow said he had been killed by the rebels. Others said he had committed suicide.

Growing difficulties

Two days later Pinochet was named president of a ruling junta. Civil rights were suspended, Marxist political parties outlawed, the power of unions reduced, and heavy censorship introduced. Many intellectuals went abroad.

Allende's palace in ruins after the military coup
Allende was found dead in the ruins of the presidential palace
It became known later that the CIA had spent millions to destabilise the Allende government.

In June 1974 Pinochet became president. In 1978, in what was called a national consultation, he won 75% of the vote.

In 1980 a new constitution was approved, and the following year Pinochet was sworn in for an eight-year presidential term.

In the 1980s he faced growing difficulties. His policies had dramatically reduced the rate of inflation, bringing prosperity to the professional and commercial sectors.

Unemployment, however, had soared and in 1981 an economic recession saw riots on the streets of Santiago.

Britain's discreet ally

During the Falklands conflict in 1982, Chile had been Britain's discreet ally against Argentina, and, despite Labour protests, Margaret Thatcher's government ended a ban on arms exports to Chile.

Over the years, President Pinochet acquired a degree of international acceptance, and he did make some concessions to democracy but, in October 1988, the electorate, given the straight choice of voting for him or against him, rejected him by 54.7% to 43%.

Pinochet is hugged by a supporter on his return to Chile
Pinochet enjoyed a warm welcome on his return to Chile
He reluctantly accepted the result and, though he refused opposition demands to hand over power immediately, he stepped down as president two years later.

However, he remained head of the Chilean armed forces for another seven years when, to the dismay of his political opponents, he became a senator for life in Chile's now democratic parliament.

If Augusto Pinochet thought he would enjoy a quiet retirement, he was mistaken. A regular visitor to Britain, where he had many friends, he was arrested in October 1998, while undergoing medical treatment in London.

Emotional return

A Spanish court had requested his extradition to face charges over alleged human rights abuses and, amid much legal wrangling, the British government placed him under house arrest.

Old friends, like Lady Thatcher, provided him with high-profile comfort.

But his opponents were outraged when a report by a team of distinguished doctors concluded that Pinochet was too ill to face a trial and the British government agreed to let him go home.

In March 2000, after 18 months of enforced exile, a Chilean plane flew General Pinochet out of Britain, back to his homeland and a welcome from the military and ecstatic supporters.

Weeks later, a court in Santiago stripped him of his immunity from prosecution, an act which provoked years of legal wrangling.

In March 2005, the Chilean appeals court voted to reverse a lower-court ruling that Pinochet could be prosecuted for his alleged role in Operation Condor, a co-ordinated effort by six South American governments to hunt down and kill political opponents in the 1970s.

Even so, at the time of his death, the general still faced a raft of other allegations, most notably over an alleged multi-million dollar tax fraud.

But the frailty of his health, after several strokes, meant that he never stood trial and, to the end, judgements on Augusto Pinochet remained passionately divided.

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