Dictator ruthlessly pursued enemies of his regime at home and abroad

 

The former Chilean leader, Gen Augusto Pinochet, was one of South America's most notorious "strongman" dictators.

The son of a customs clerk, he was born in the port of Valparaiso in 1915. He still speaks in the dockside argot of the city, making it hard for many fellow Spanish speakers to understand him.

He managed to secure a place at the Chilean military academy in the 1950s - despite having been rejected twice - and gained a bachelor's degree. He taught military strategy and international relations, but he loathed intellectuals and never lost his faith in horoscopes and lucky numbers.

A fitness enthusiast since his youth, he gained a black belt in karate and was one of the earliest converts to the jogging craze.

Gen Pinochet, father of five children, came to the world's attention in 1973 when, as commander of the army, he took part in a military coup to topple the socialist President Salvador Allende Gossens, who had ruled since 1970. President Allende lost his life in the coup, although whether he committed suicide or was murdered is still disputed.

Gen Pinochet quickly proved himself a clever and streetwise leader, craftily arranging the public discrediting and judicial removal of other coup leaders. It is estimated his army killed 3,000 people between the coup and the end of anti-opposition violence in the mid-1980s.

In his first years in power Gen Pinochet's security forces, known as the DINA, pursued the regime's enemies at home and abroad.

In 1974 Gen Carlos Prats, an Allende sympathiser, was murdered in exile in Argentina. In 1975 the then British Prime Minister, Mr Harold Wilson, recalled the UK's ambassador after Dr Sheila Cassidy was tortured for allegedly treating opponents of the regime, and in 1976 DINA-linked terrorists blew up the car of an exiled Allende aide, Orlando Letelier, in Washington.

In Europe and North America Gen Pinochet's seizure of power divided opinion. Auberon Waugh wrote an article in the Spectator headlined, "Pinochet is Beautiful".

The dictator was a staunch Cold War ally of the US. An unnamed American official was once quoted as saying of the general: "He may have been a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch".

In 1980 his new constitution was passed by plebiscite, stacking the cards in favour of the country's conservative forces and allowing Gen Pinochet to assume a seat in the Senate for life, which he took up earlier this year. The constitution also set the stage for democratic reforms.

Gen Pinochet was obsessed with the Prussian military tradition and Chile's armed forces still goose-step and drill in the Prussian fashion to this day. He was an admirer of the Spanish dictator Franco and made one of his rare trips abroad to attend the Generalissimo's funeral in 1975.

Like Franco he viewed efficiency and stability as key selling points for his regime, and he sought, and found, his most loyal support among conservative Catholic clergy.

In 1986 there was a serious attempt on his life when a commando squad attacked his motorcade with bazookas. While 11 of his bodyguards were killed in the attack the dictator escaped almost without a scratch.

In 1988 the Catholic hierarchy pressed him to hold free elections. Instead, he held a referendum on whether to extend his term as absolute leader.

The result was that 55 per cent of Chileans voted for Gen Pinochet to step aside. He did so in 1990, and was replaced by Patricio Aylwin, who had been elected to succeed him.

Gen Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean army until March this year when he was sworn in as a senator-for-life.

The deal which saw him take up his seat in the Senate also gave him legal immunity from prosecution for alleged human rights abuse under his rule.