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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 10:06 GMT
Chile divided over Pinochet illness
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Santiago

A supporter of Gen Pinochet outside the hospital where he is being treated
Supporters have been gathering outside Gen Pinochet's hospital

A national hero, who saved his country from communist chaos, is fighting for his final breaths after 91 years of dedication to his people.

Or is a thieving murderer feigning sickness to dodge the steadily increasing number of human rights and fraud charges being lodged against him?

Chile, as it was during the 17 years of military rule by Augusto Pinochet and the three years of socialist government that preceded it, is a country divided.

As the former president lies in a military hospital in the capital, Santiago, after suffering a heart attack on Sunday, his supporters gather outside, waving Chilean flags, chanting slogans and placing bronze busts of their hero on the pavement.

Motorists beep their horns in support as they drive past.

Many are elderly women from the upmarket Las Condes area.

But others are youngsters who would have little or no memory of the bloody military coup that brought Gen Pinochet to power in 1973.

He left us a country where there was normality, the economy was in good shape and everything was in order
Jaime del Valle
Former foreign minister

"As a Chilean I feel I have to be here to thank General Pinochet for all the great things he did for this country. The country has a short memory and has forgotten many things," one young woman said.

When I reminded a young man that several charges of human rights abuses and fraud had been brought against the former military leader, he replied: "I know - but he's still the best thing that ever happened to Chile."

One of a long line of friends and well-wishers to visit Gen Pinochet in hospital was his former Foreign Minister Jaime del Valle.

"He inherited a country in chaos. There was no order, no food, people were desperate. It was a very difficult period. He left us a country where there was normality, the economy was in good shape and everything was in order," the former minister said.

Prosecution moves

On Sunday, Augusto Pinochet underwent a surgical procedure to widen a blood vessel.

Gen Augusto Pinochet
Gen Pinochet has said he is sure he will go to heaven

At one stage a Catholic priest was called to give the last rites. However, since then his doctor, Juan Ignacio Vergara, has given increasingly positive reports of Gen Pinochet's progress.

Some now question whether the former president was sick at all.

They say he has a habit of falling ill as moves to prosecute him for human rights abuses committed during his 17 years in office gather pace.

The most obvious example came seven years ago.

Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon tried to bring him justice and had him detained in a luxury house outside London for more than a year - only to see Gen Pinochet sent home after being deemed too sick to stand trial.

Shortly after arriving back in Santiago he appeared fit and well.

'Medical miracle'

On the other side of the city, away from the five-star hotels and designer clothes shops, is the headquarters of the families of disappeared prisoners.

Their president, Lorena Pizarro, sits under a huge poster bearing photographs of some of 3,000 people who were killed under military rule.

Opponents of Gen Pinochet protest outside the hospital where he is being treated
Opponents fear Gen Pinochet will escape prosecution through illness

"Maybe he is sick," she said.

"But a week ago we saw him celebrate his birthday and he seemed fit and well for a 91 year old. And we've seen one medical miracle after another with him, so you have to have your doubts," she said.

The most controversial issue in Chile at the moment is whether Augusto Pinochet, when he does die, will receive the state funeral normally given to former presidents.

His opponents say he was never elected and with so many legal cases against him, he should not.

The Chilean press says that as the former head of the army, he will be given a military funeral.

Ms Pizarro said: "Pinochet is a terrorist and as such he should be allowed to die with his family but without any honours that would legitimise the crimes against humanity he committed."

The left-wing government of President Michelle Bachelet, who herself was a prisoner under military rule, has refused to comment, saying it is not appropriate to speak while the former military leader is still alive.

In 1989, Augusto Pinochet said: "I'll go to heaven. Where would I have gone, do you think? To hell? No, don't worry, I'll go to heaven."

His supporters don't doubt that for a moment. His opponents would rather he stuck around for a while longer so Augusto Pinochet can be tried on this Earth.

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