Pinochet in London clinic

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REPORTS OF the death of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, appear to have been exaggerated.

According to his son, Augusto Pinochet Jnr, the retired general and now senator is in a satisfactory condition in a London clinic after a hernia operation at the weekend.

Mr Pinochet went on Chilean television to scotch rumours that began late last week when his 82-year-old father disappeared during a private visit to London with his wife, Lucia.

The first reports from friends of the Pinochet family said that he had been rushed to a London clinic and operated on under tight security to prevent protests against him. That started a media frenzy in Chile, where a major newspaper sent reporters to London to find the mystery clinic.

One television channel cited what it called a US news report saying that the former dictator had died on the operating table.

Since his military coup to overthrow the elected Marxist president Salvador Allende in 1973, Chileans either love the retired general or hate him. Those who hate him have been waiting to celebrate his death for years, particularly since he had heart problems in 1992. They blame him for the deaths or disappearances of at least 3,000 people during his dictatorship, many of them students or left-wing intellectuals.

Those who love, or at least respect him, credit him with returning the country to democracy when he stood down in 1990, and with presiding over the country's economic success story. That support was enough to allow him to become a senator earlier this year, when he finally stepped down as army commander. He had, of course, previously changed the constitution to allow himself to sit in the upper house for life.

Amnesty International at the weekend called on British police to arrest him, saying there was enough evidence to link him with torture.

The Foreign Office saidChileans do not need visas to enter Britain and that the former dictator was free to come in on a private visit "like any other Chilean citizen".