Chile president's corpse exhumed to finally settle suicide claims

An international team of forensic experts yesterday began examining the remains of Chile's former president Salvador Allende to get to the bottom of a mystery with huge political symbolism: was he murdered or did he kill himself as Chile's military bombarded the presidential palace?

Controversy has raged over the precise details of Mr Allende's death ever since infantry, tanks and fighter jets sent by the head of the armed forces, General Augusto Pinochet, seized power from the democratically elected socialist government in 1973, ushering in a military dictatorship that killed or disappeared nearly 3,000 people.

At 8.20am yesterday, 50 minutes after the exhumation began, the former president's coffin was removed from the family mausoleum at Santiago's General Cemetery and taken by car to the headquarters of Chile's Legal Medical Service. There, a team of 11 experts from five countries, including David Pryor, of Britain's National Ballistics Intelligence Service, began the painstaking task of examining the remains. A spokesperson for the service told The Independent that it would probably be weeks before the team was able to release its findings.

The last person to see Mr Allende alive, his personal doctor Patricio Guijon, said that he witnessed the president commit suicide with an AK-47 machine gun pressed under his chin. Dr Guijon claimed that he then sat "scared to death" beside the corpse for 20 minutes as the battle continued to rage outside.

However, his account, which backed up the claim of the coup-plotters that Mr Allende had killed himself, has been severely questioned and Dr Guijon has even been accused of being a Pinochet apologist. Those doubts increased in 2008 when the forensic specialist Jose Luis Vazquez Fernandez re-examined the medical reports from the original autopsy and concluded that it indicated there were two gunshot wounds, one probably from a pistol and another from a larger weapon. Clouding the picture further there have also been claims that one of Mr Allende's own bodyguards delivered a coup de grâce to the wounded president.

In moral terms the truth may matter little. Either way, Mr Allende died as a result of a treasonous revolt by his own armed forces. But for many Chileans, just knowing what really happened has acquired huge significance. "We, the family, have our belief, but that is different from a judge determining the cause," Mr Allende's daughter, Isabel, now a senator, told the Chilean paper El Mercurio.

The significance of the autopsy may also have international repercussions in a region where the wounds inflicted by Operation Condor, the concerted 1970s campaign to wipe out left-wing dissidents by the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, remain close to the surface.