Pope makes plea to Britain over Pinochet's fate

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THE POPE has intervened in the political and legal row over the fate of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet after intense lobbying from opposing factions.

Which side John Paul II has swung his support behind was unclear last night. The Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons said in a written reply in the Lords that the Vatican had made representations to Britain about the arrest of the 83-year-old who faces extradition to Spain on charges of human rights abuse.

But the former Tory chancellor Lord Lamont, who had been part of a campaign to get General Pinochet's release, was confident that the Pope wanted the general to be freed and sent back to Chile.

He said: "I suspect that the representations have been made at the highest level, recognising the general's great contribution to protect freedom in the Cold War. The Government should listen to the voice of the Pope as a Christian leader. He understands the value of human life. But as someone who lived under a Communist dictatorship... [he] would understand the reason for saving a country from a Marxist dictatorship."

The Independent has learnt that a number of senior Catholic clerics - led by Cardinal Jorge Medina and the Nuncio in Chile, Piero Biggio - have been lobbying John Paul II to intervene on the side of General Pinochet. However, human rights groups and centre-left politicians have also made representations to the Vatican, pointing out the crimes committed during the general's repressive regime.

The campaign group Amnesty International, which has pressed for the former Chilean dictator to face justice, said last night: "We do not know which side the Pope has decided to go on, but he has recently spoken out about human rights and has also spoken out against the death penalty."

The Independent has been told that Chilean opponents of the general had written an open letter to the Pope pointing out that the abuses under his dictatorship were in breach of the directions of the Second Vatican Council over human rights. "The Catholic Church cannot teach future generations in Chile... that to kill , to make disappear and to torture" is part of Christian doctrine, they said.