Pinochet in the 'hands of God and the doctors'

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The Independent US

The former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet suffered a major heart attack yesterday but was described as being in a "serious but stable" condition following an emergency angioplasty at Santiago's military hospital.

The 91-year-old was taken to hospital in the middle of the night and was even given the last rites before the operation, which involves a balloon being used to widen arteries in the heart, stabilised him.

"My grandfather is now out of danger, but his condition is very serious," one relative, Felipe Pinochet, told reporters. His son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, added: "We're in the hands of God and the doctors."

Medical staff said the general was conscious and receiving visitors. A small band of supporters gathered outside the hospital holding up photographs and a small bronze bust.

Even if he recovers, this latest health setback makes it more unlikely than ever that he will stand trial for human rights abuses perpetrated during the 1973 military coup that brought him to power, and during the 17 years in which he held power after that.

A Chilean government commission has determined that more than 3,000 people were killed or "disappeared", and 28,000 were imprisoned or tortured.

Last month, General Pinochet was placed under house arrest and accused of kidnapping and murdering two bodyguards who worked for Salvador Allende, the left-wing president he overthrew. The bodyguards were held during the September 1973 coup and executed a month later.

Every time the general has faced new charges, or had his parliamentary immunity lifted, his lawyers have successfully argued that he was not fit to stand trial. Perhaps the most delicate moment came when he was placed under house arrest in London in 1998 and forced to stay in Britain pending a decision on his status. It was Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary, who decided to release him after more than a year and allow him to return home.

General Pinochet has had problems with his heart before, and is fitted with a pacemaker. He has also complained of diabetes and arthritis. A series of small strokes led to one diagnosis of mild dementia. Human rights lawyers have frequently complained that his health appears to deteriorate every time he faces prosecution.

General Pinochet marked his 91st birthday on 25 November with a statement taking an unprecedented degree of responsibility for human rights abuses, but he remainedunapologetic. "Today, near the end of my days," he wrote, "I want to say that I harbour no rancour against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all, and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done, which had no other goal than making Chile greater."

The question of how to handle the general has deeply divided his fellow countrymen and his supporters and detractors worldwide. The election of Ricardo Lagos, the first left-wing president since General Pinochet's rule, in 2000, greatly increased the legal pressure on the general. At one point, he was ordered to report to the police and have photographs taken. The country's courts have, however, always ruled against putting him on trial.

Supporters say he resisted Communism and enacted economic reforms that enhanced prosperity.

But it emerged in 2004 that he had stashed $27m (£13.6m) in offshore bank accounts. One outstanding charge against him is for violation of Chile's tax code.