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Son's corpse exhumed in Menem family feud

Carlitos (Little Carlos) Menem always liked to travel in style. Playboy son of Argentina's President, he drove racing cars and flew his own helicopter.

Despite his father's wealth, he never really made it on the track. Judging by the official report on his death, he was not the greatest of helicopter pilots either. He flew into a high- voltage power line in March last year, ending his life at the age of 26.

That's the official version. His mother insists he was murdered, that the helicopter was shot down. And she implies that his father, the country's president and her ex-husband, Carlos Menem, was either involved or, at least, knew who did it.

The mother, Zulema Yoma, has never really explained why Carlos senior should have had his son and heir killed. She has talked vaguely of his "shutting him up for political reasons", and of possible involvement by drug traffickers.

Many Argentines think she is mentally unstable, a line pushed by Mr Menem himself, although usually with the euphemistic coda: "She's going through the pain of a bereaved mother."

The couple, both of whom originate from the same small town in Syria, went through a messy divorce last year after the president threw his wife out of the palace.

At dawn on Friday, Little Carlos travelled in style for the last time. After being dug up from the Muslim cemetery at San Justo, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, his body was driven with a 40-vehicle police escort to the capital's morgue.

Ever since his death, his mother had demanded an autopsy to prove her murder theory. She said she also wanted to be sure the body buried was really that of her son. President Menem, always insisting it was an accident, finally relented and allowed the exhumation and autopsy by 30 experts in the presence of a federal judge.

After 16 months in the grave, some doubt reigned as to whether the body would be in condition for a fruitful examination. The experts decided it was, and studied it for four hours with Mrs Yoma's lawyers present. She herself remained outside, still insisting her son's death was "sabotage that began at the presidential palace".

Earlier, she told reporters that Carlitos had received death threats in the weeks before the crash. She and her daughter Zulemita (Little Zulema), 26, who as stand-in First Lady came close to upstaging the Princess of Wales with a mini-skirted appearance by her father's side in Buenos Aires last November, had received similar threats, she said.

"It also took 50 minutes to get Carlitos to a hospital, whereas it usually takes only eight minutes. He was left unattended for 30 minutes while still alive. And when the life-support machine was switched off, we were not consulted," she said.

Mr Menem, telling friends he was disgusted by the whole affair, left town for the weekend for his home province of La Rioja.

After the autopsy, Carlitos's body was returned to the grave. Or, rather, another grave. Mrs Yoma insisted her boy be re-buried not in the Muslim cemetery with Mr Menem's relatives but next to his maternal grandmother. The experts made no comment after the autopsy, saying they would issue their findings in a fortnight or so.