`It's like having Hitler move in,' say the general's new neighbours in the gin belt

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The Independent Online
THE DRIVEWAYS are long and curve gently up towards large, modern houses set in grounds kept immaculate by hired help. There is an abundance of trees, an abundance of swimming pools, and no shortage of polished Bentleys. The well-dressed residents have access to a golf club used for the World Matchplay Championship.

Welcome to the exclusive Wentworth Estate at Virginia Water, in Surrey's "gin belt", home to celebrities such as Bruce Forsyth, Russ Abbot and at one time the Duchess of York, and resting home - at least as of last night - to a former Latin American dictator.

From now on social-climbing residents here will be keeping up with the Pinochets. The general, forced out of a private hospital in north London, arrived at the estate near Guildford last night and moved into a high- walled, nine-bedroomed rented property in Lindale Close.

Uniformed police sealed off that part of the estate and before the general moved in there were checks carried out by officers and dog-handlers. There will be a round-the-clock presence until the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, decides the fate of the 83-year-old accused of genocide.

The former dictator's arrival last night drew a mixed reaction from the neighbours. One said she couldn't care less while another said it was like being told Hitler had moved in next door.

"To be honest it doesn't surprise me," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "There are supposed to be Russian underworld figures and members of the Hong Kong Triads living around us on the estate, so a former Chilean dictator who is supposed to be responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of his own people is not exactly big news."

Another resident, retired banker Sheila Wickens, 60, said she thought half the estate was made up of homes that were rented out, many to foreigners working in Britain.

"Each resident pays for security on the estate. There are guards who patrol the grounds and each road is gated off," she said. "People can pay for close circuit TV and burglar alarms are linked to the police station."

The general has moved into one of the most exclusive parts of the estate, close to the golf course and around 600yds from Pinewood Road, where untilMarch last year the Duchess of York lived following her divorce from Prince Andrew.

On this part of the estate the houses cost upwards of pounds 6m and some of the driveways are more than half-a-mile long. "You may not see your neighbour in months," said one resident.

Estate agent Edward Rook, of Knight Frank, which has sold many of the houses, said: "International people like to come here. It is an American style of living.

"There is a bit of space, more than in central London, but not a huge amount of elbow room. The thing is it is not a burden, easily manageable if you are away or overseas."

None of this comes cheaply. Estimates suggest the house Pinochet will share with his wife, daughter and small entourage will cost around pounds 10,000 a month to rent. It is understood that in addition to this the owner insisted that insurance be taken out against bomb, rocket or firearm damage before his notorious client could move in.

However, the general's supporters say that money is not a problem. All they want is for his enforced stay in Britain to be as comfortable as possible.

Just who is bank-rolling General Pinochet is not clear but it is understood that among his backers is Carlos Carceres, President of the Chilean subsidiary of British & American Tobacco (BAT), the international tobacco corporation.

There has also been help from Nico Rogerson, former partner in Dewe Rogerson, a City PR firm, and Lord Bell, former PR adviser to the Tories. Sebastian Santa Cruz, the brother of Lucia Santa Cruz - a former close friend of Prince Charles - has been acting as coordinator for the campaign.

BAT denied yesterday that it was contributing to the general's hospital stay or legal bills. However, Michael Prideaux, director of consumer affairs, said that some "external" directors of its subsidiary, Chile Tobaccos SA, were helping.

"Chile Tobaccos is the biggest cigarette manufacturer in the country and we own 70 per cent of it," he said. "The other 30 per cent is represented by local shareholders, some of whom have been voicing their support for General Pinochet and pointing out the dangers to democracy that this case is posing.

"BAT is not contributing financially to his medical treatment or his legal bills. Our opinion, however, is that it would be a great shame if all this grandstanding undermined democracy in Chile."

It is understood television advertisements - possibly paid for by the Pinochet Foundation - are running in Chile, asking his supporters to make donations to a numbered account.

Despite his notoriety, the general is apparently not short of friends. This weekend the columnist Taki Theodoracopulos said he and Robin Birley, stepson of the late Sir James Goldsmith, had been trying to arrange somewhere for the dictator to live.

"We found one house but the police said it was too far from the M25," Mr Theodoracopulos said. "We are simply concerned that if he is detained in Britain he should be kept in dignified circumstances. After all, he is an old man."

Mr Theodoracopulos yesterday declined to comment on whether he or others were involved in paying for the Virginia Waters property. "He has said all he wanted to at the weekend," said his secretary.

However, as the residents of the Wentworth Estate returned home last, the one certainty was that in the coming days there would be plenty more to say about their new neighbour.