THE PINOCHET AFFAIR: Thatcher support angers Argentina

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The Independent Online
BARONESS THATCHER'S call to free General Augusto Pinochet has stirred up a hornet's nest in Latin America and thrown William Hague's Tory leadership into confusion.

Her call to free the former Chilean dictator, saying he saved British lives during the Falklands War, landed like a bombshell in both Chile and Argentina. She may well have soured slowly improving relations between the two South American neighbours and she has certainly added some spice to next week's visit to London by the Argentine president Carlos Menem.

"The Iron Couple", splashed the front page of Argentina's daily Pagina 12, above a huge picture of Lady Thatcher and Pinochet gazing into each other's eyes like two lovers on a cruise liner.

Referring to Mr Menem'svisit, the newspaper wrote: "the programme [for the visit] was bucolic. But Pinochet's detention has interrupted the siesta. It has put human rights up as a theme for discussion among British politicians."

"Margaret Thatcher confirmed what was suspected for 16 years: Chile furnished important support to Britain during the war," said another Argentinian daily, La Nacion.

Lady Thatcher's remark that the Chilean support had saved British lives suggested that that support was more extensive and more crucial than had previously been thought.

Her call to free General Pinochet may have caused consternation in Buenos Aires, but in London it appeared to have united Tory backbench MPs behind her.

For some right-wing MPs, it was just like the old days at the Commons, with "Mother" back with her finger on their pulse, being nasty to the Argies. Lady Thatcher's letter to The Times on Wednesday reinforced the Tory view that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands should be kept off the agenda during President Menem's visit.

Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury, said: "Lady Thatcher was absolutely right. She is the most important retired statesman in this country. As so very often, she is able to focus people on the real issue.

"Pinochet is an unattractive man, but the Chileans are trying to bury their past. We should not tear up our relationships when it suits us."

David Curry, the former agriculture minister who resigned from Mr Hague's front bench over Europe, said he had marked yesterday in his diary as the day he agreed with Lady Thatcher. "She is right on this. She has reunited the party. She has hit the nail on the head."

David Wilshire, Tory MP for Spelthorne, welcomed Lady Thatcher's intervention. "I'mdelighted that somebody has spoken out and opened up the debate so that we can examine the Blair government's incompetence and double standards in all this," he said.

Mr Blair was happy to "cosy up" to left-wing dictators during his recent visit to China, Mr Wilshire added.

But there was widespread criticism of the Tory leadership's handling of the affair as - not for the first time - Lady Thatcher made her own party leader look limp.

Peter Lilley, the deputy Tory leader, caused his own MPs excruciating embarrassment in an interview on BBC radio when he refused to say whether he supported her or not.

"Mrs Thatcher made a very pertinent point from her own experience," was as far as hewould go. Mr Lilley's performance was so bad that Tory party sources disowned him, saying they had not suggested he should go on to the programme, and that he was responsible for volunteering to answer for the Opposition.

Mr Hague was later forced to issue his own statement on the matter, but like Mr Lilley, it avoided giving direct support to either Lady Thatcher or General Pinochet.

The Tories may be concerned about how supporting General Pinochet will play with the public and their supporters in the country. Aidan Rankin, secretary of a Conservatives for Human Rights group which is due to be launched on Monday, said that Tories should stop being "apologists for a bloodthirsty dictator".

"I am horrified that prominent Conservatives are speaking out in support of General Pinochet," he said. "If the Conservative Party is to appeal to a wider electorate, it needs to change tack fundamentally and rediscover its support for human rights, and economic and social justice."

Meanwhile, in Chile, the dictator's former henchmen yesterday came out in support of their current leadership, while still calling for General Pinochet's release.

After calling in his leading officers to discuss the detention of General Pinochet, Chile's army commander, General Ricardo Izurieta, said the army would use "all its forces ... to bring the captain general [Pinochet's honorary title] back to our national territory as soon as possible." But he added, significantly, that the military would act "through government channels".

General Izurieta, who succeeded Pinochet when the latter retired from the army earlier this year, said he and the armed forces were "extremely concerned" at their former commander's detention.

The army commander's Wednesday night statement and the meeting with his top brass were the first official responses by Chile's powerful armed forces to the arrest of the man they all still revere.

Analysts saw his remarks as aimed at defusing rumours of a possible coup d'etat and instead showing support for the civilian president, Eduardo Frei, who has also called for Pinochet's release. Mr Frei called on the nation to show "serenity and tranquillity" after signs that Chile was becoming increasingly polarised between left and right in the wake of General Pinochet's detention.

Love or hate him - or, more commonly in Chile, simply tolerate him - his detention has revealed the extent of the shadow he still casts across the nation.

Mr Frei met yesterday with the speaker of the Senate, Andres Zaldivar, to discuss the crisis, and was considering calling a meeting of the National Security Council, including military leaders. Mr Zaldivar said Chile was now "living the most delicate moment of the transition (to democracy)."He poured cold water on proposals that Chile should boycott British and Spanish products.

t LAWYERS IN Spain defending the victims of General Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile moved yesterday to have the charges expanded to include another 119 deaths.

Judge Baltasar Garzon earlier this week broadened his arrest warrant from 79 victims to cover the the killings or "disappearances" of 94 people.