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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Clashes Break Out After Pinochet's Death

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who terrorized his opponents for 17 years after taking power in a bloody coup, died Sunday, putting an end to a decade of intensifying efforts to bring him to trial for human rights abuses blamed on his regime. He was 91.

Violent clashes broke out between police and Pinochet opponents who threw rocks at cars and set up fire barricades on the city's main avenue. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Authorities said there were a number of arrests, but no immediate reports of injuries.

Hundreds of Pinochet supporters gathered outside the hospital, weeping and trading insults with people in passing cars. Some shouted "Long Live Pinochet!" and sang Chile's national anthem.

Many Chileans saw Pinochet's death as reason for celebration. Hundreds of cheering, flag-waving people crowded a major plaza in the capital, drinking champagne and tossing confetti.

Supporters saw Pinochet as a Cold War hero for overthrowing democratically elected President Salvador Allende at a time when the U.S. was working to destabilize his Marxist government and keep Chile from exporting communism in Latin America.

But the world soon reacted in horror as Santiago's main soccer stadium filled with political prisoners to be tortured, shot, disappeared or forced into exile.

Pinochet's dictatorship laid the groundwork for South America's most stable economy, but his crackdown on dissent left a lasting legacy: His name has become a byword for the state terror, in many cases secretly supported by the United States, that retarded democratic change across the hemisphere.

Pinochet died with his family at his side at the Santiago Military Hospital on Sunday, a week after suffering a heart attack.

"This criminal has departed without ever being sentenced for all the acts he was responsible for during his dictatorship," lamented Hugo Gutierrez, a human rights lawyer involved in several lawsuits against Pinochet.

"Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile represented one of most difficult periods in that nation's history," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. "Our thoughts today are with the victims of his reign and their families."

Chile's government says at least 3,197 people were killed for political reasons during Pinochet's rule, but courts allowed the aging general to escape hundreds of criminal complaints as his health declined.

The mustachioed Pinochet left no doubt about who was in charge after the Sept. 11, 1973 coup, when warplanes bombed the presidential palace and Allende committed suicide with a submachine gun Fidel Castro had given him.

"Not a leaf moves in this country if I'm not moving it," Pinochet said.

But he refused for years to take responsibility his regime's abuses, blaming subordinates for killings or tortures.
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