US pursues Pinochet for plot to murder diplomat

Officials arrive in Santiago to gather evidence that ex-dictator ordered assassination of envoy in Washington car bomb

Officials from the United States Justice Department have arrived in Chile to round up witnesses for a grand jury probe aimed at indicting General Augusto Pinochet for allegedly ordering the assassination of a former Chilean diplomat in Washington 24 years ago.

A grand jury investigation into the car bombing, which killed Chile's former ambassador Orlando Letelier and his associate Ronni Moffit, has remained dormant for years, but has now been reopened.

Although half a dozen people were jailed for what is considered the only proven case of state-sponsored terrorism in the US, there was an outcry from relatives and human rights activists as soon as General Pinochet was detained in Britain in October 1998.

The High Court in Santiago gave the go-ahead for subpoenas two weeks ago, shortly after the former president was freed from 16 months' house arrest in Britain.

There is little chance that General Pinochet will stand trial in the US, even if he is indicted in the Letelier case because of a complicated extradition treaty between the two countries. But US authorities believe an investigation, aimed at establishing if General Pinochet ordered the car bombing, will intensify pressure to try him in Chile for the thousands of alleged human rights abuses committed during his 17 years in power. The Chilean government acknowledges that over 3,000 dissidents vanished between 1973 and 1990.

General Pinochet is under armed guard in his residence high above Santiago and has not returned to political life while charges against him mount - at the last count there were 73. A recent fainting spell and subsequent brain scans in a Santiago clinic re-emphasised the elderly general's physical frailties, even though he appeared remarkably robust when the armed forces welcomed him back to Chile earlier this month. The general's sons attributed his apparent strength to a combination of painkillers and euphoria at arriving home.

General Manuel Contreras, the former chief of the Chilean secret police, Dina, was indicted seven years ago for masterminding the extermination of General Pinochet's critics abroad. He will be transferred next Monday from a military base, where he has been held since 1993, to Punta Peuco, a Santiago prison. Judge Joaquin Billard will then open a sealed envelope from the Washington DC federal court and question Contreras in detail about the conspiracy against Mr Letelier.

The US Justice Department has prepared similar envelopes for over 40 subpoenaed witnesses, and the FBI has also sent investigators to Santiago for informal questioning of military officers who may have been in close contact with General Pinochet in the weeks before the car bomb. Neither the FBI agents nor the US prosecutors will be allowed in the courtroom, where American interests will be represented by a Chilean attorney.

A CIA report which was compiled in 1978 and recently declassified, stated: "None of the government's critics and few of its supporters would be willing to swallow claims that Contreras acted without presidential concurrence."

Isabel Letelier, the former ambassador's widow, was exiled in Washington for 30 years, but now lives in Santiago. She said the new centre-left government in Chile seemed committed to co-operating with the American investigators.

"The wheels of justice sometimes are very slow," Mrs Letelier told the The Washington Post, after a senior Justice Department official assured her that the US government would now "vigorously" pursue those responsible for her husband's death. "I only have the conviction that Pinochet was behind many murders, and my husband's is one of them," she said.

Prosecutors have been unable to prove that the dictator expressly authorised Mr Letelier's assassination. Yet an affidavit, written in 1978 by the head of Dina operations, General Pedro Espinoza, recently emerged. It states that the operation was ordered by the president of Chile, according to John Dinges, a journalist who claims a Chilean reporter gave him the crucial document.

Earlier trials concluded that Mr Letelier's Chevrolet was blown up by remote control. The ex-ambassador died instantly; Ms Moffitt, a colleague at a Washington think-tank, was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel and bled to death.

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