Thousands pay last respects to Pinochet

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The Independent US

Thousands of mourners filed through the military academy in Santiago yesterday to pay respects to the former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who died from heart disease on Sunday, aged 91.

The former Chilean leader, who seized power in a coup in 1973, was laid out in a glass-topped coffin dressed in full military uniform after his remains were moved to the academy. A public mass will be held this morning before his body is cremated.

In the first of three religious services, 500 officials from the government and military crowded into the hall.

"He was a great hero and a saviour for our country," Ximena Ale, a middle-aged woman who wore sunglasses to conceal her tears, said. "He is such a hero, he's like a father to me."

Outside, thousands of Chileans wearing badges, flags and posters waited behind the gates and listened to the service over the loudspeakers. "I came to express my feelings of deep loyalty towards my General," Paula Riquelme, 34, one of the supporters, said. "I want the world to know the good things he did for us."

The defenders of Pinochet praise his role in overthrowing his predecessor, Salvador Allende, who, they say, was leading their country into Communism. They also credit him for introducing the free-market policies that have given the country its economic prosperity today.

However, most of his loyalists deserted him in recent years as it emerged that he had squirrelled away as much as $27m (£13.7m) in foreign bank accounts.

A decision by the government of President Michelle Bachelet to deny Pinochet full state honours in death, leaving all burial arrangements to the military, has angered members of the Pinochet family.

The general's son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, told an interviewer that there was "no proof" that his father was guilty of the crimes he was accused of. "My father, perhaps not today but in time, will hold the place of honour that he deserves in Chilean society," he said.

Chile's Interior Minister, Belisario Velasco, said Pinochet did not meet the criteria for receiving such honours by the state. "He'll be remembered as a right-wing dictator who gravely violated human rights and made himself wealthy," he said. "That has been the tonic of Latin America's right-wing dictatorships."

"He wasn't even a good soldier," La Nacion, the daily newspaper in Chile, said in an editorial. "What 'achievement' of his can compare to the thousands of murdered, detained and vanished, tortured, exiled ... [and] humiliated ... by his regime? None."

In dying, Pinochet eluded the justice that for years had been sought by human rights activists and relatives of the more than 3,000 Chileans who died in political violence during his years in power. An additional 28,000 people were tortured and thousands forced into exile.

While the streets of Santiago became clogged late on Sunday with throngs cheering and beating drums in celebration of the news of the former dictator's death, others gathered outside the military academy and the hospital where he died to show their love for him.

The street carnival turned violent, with 43 police officers injured and more than 100 people arrested. While the government has kept a low profile, and Ms Bachelet did not make a statement on Pinochet's death, she reacted to the violence, saying: "We've seen acts of division that we don't like ... But I know that as a country, as a society, we have the moral and ethical strength to reconcile ourselves."

President Bachelet is not expected at the mass. Her father, a former air force officer who supported Allende, died at the hands of Pinochet interrogators and she herself was briefly taken in custody by the secret police before fleeing into exile.

She defended her decision to deny the general a state funeral, saying: "Leaders, governors, have to take decisions in the interests of the whole country."

Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said General Pinochet "symbolised a dark period in South America's history, a long night when the lights of democracy disappeared, stamped out by authoritarian coups".