Chilean ex-dictator Pinochet fighting for life after heart attack, but shows improvement

Monday, December 4th 2006, 9:27 am
By: News On 6

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose health problems have long helped him escape trial for abuses committed during his 1973-90 rule, was conscious and talking Monday after emergency surgery to clear a clogged artery that caused a heart attack, one of his doctors said.

Pinochet, 91, was rushed to the hospital early Sunday, a week after he took ``full political responsibility'' for the actions of his government, which carried out thousands of political killings, widespread torture and illegal detentions.

Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara, a member of Pinochet's medical team, said an angioplasty to clear Pinochet's heart artery obstruction ``allowed improvement in his condition.''

``No bypass has been performed and we expect no open heart surgery will be necessary,'' Vergara said, explaining that such a procedure would be extremely risky for someone of Pinochet's age.

Vergara said Pinochet was conscious and communicating with family members and doctors, who also had been able to drain a buildup of fluid in his lungs.

He ``spent a stable, calm night,'' his son Marco Antonio said Monday morning.

But Vergara stressed that complications could still appear. Pinochet, who was under house arrest at his suburban Santiago residence on human rights charges, uses a pacemaker and suffers from diabetes, arthritis and mild dementia caused by several strokes.

The former dictator has been increasingly isolated since 1998, when he was arrested in London on an international warrant issued by a Spanish judge who unsuccessfully sought his extradition on human rights charges.

On Sept. 11, the 33rd anniversary of the military coup against socialist President Salvador Allende, only two women appeared at his house for what used to be a day of great celebration.

Still, staunch suporters continue to express loyalty, insisting Pinochet saved Chile from communism. Some 10 supporters spent the entire night in front of the hospital, some praying.

As the news of the heart attack spread, some 50 supporters gathered in front of the hospital, some carrying portraits of the former ruler.

``He's like a father to me, and we all owe him so much,'' said Julieta Aguilar, who held a small bronze bust of Pinochet.

Presidential spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber said the government was closely following the former dictator's health. Pinochet's faltering condition has helped him avoid trial, with judges dismissing at least two cases in recent years saying he was unfit for court. His foes say he exaggerates his health problems.

``He is hospitalized every time he faces an indictment. That is why we have doubts this time, too,'' human rights lawyer Hiram Villagra told Radio Bio Bio.

In 2004, a probe launched after a U.S. Senate committee reported that Pinochet had millions deposited at the Riggs Bank in Washington. The report led to his indictment on tax evasion charges.

Pinochet was indicted on human rights violations and put under house arrest last week for the execution of two Allende bodyguards in 1973. A court was scheduled to rule Monday on his appeal.

It was the fifth such action against Pinochet, who was also under another indictment in a separate human rights cases.

On Nov. 25, Pinochet's 91st birthday, he for the first time he took political _ if not explicitly legal _ responsibility for abuses under his regime.

``Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration,'' he said in a statement read by his wife.

According to an official report prepared by an independent commission appointed by the first civilian government after Pinochet's rule, 3,197 people were killed for political reasons during his regime and more than 1,000 of them were never found.