From staff and wire reports
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Augusto Pinochet was welcomed home to Chile by
cheering supporters on Friday, 16 months after he was detained in Britain on
an extradition warrant charging the former dictator with torture and murder.
But the public display of affection did not end the debate about whether
Pinochet should face trial.
The 84-year-old Pinochet left Britain on Thursday after British Home
Secretary Jack Straw ruled he was mentally and physically unfit to be
extradited to Spain for trial on charges of human rights abuses.
After the Chilean Air Force Boeing 707 that flew him home landed at
Santiago's international airport Friday morning, Pinochet was lifted out
in a wheelchair.
Dozens of waiting supporters cheered and military music played. Pinochet,
smiling, and occasionally using a cane, walked through the crowd. He
hugged and kissed several people, including his grandchildren and army
commander Gen. Ricardo Izurieta.
An army band played some of Pinochet's favorite military marches. The
retired general then boarded a helicopter with his wife and children for a
brief flight to a military hospital where family members said he would
undergo medical tests.
Supporters swarm streets of Santiago
In the streets outside the hospital, people chanted "Pinochet, Pinochet!
We are with you!" Many sang the national anthem, waved flags and held
up large photographs of the general.
Pinochet is popular among many right-wing Chileans who credit him with
saving the country from Marxism under Salvador Allende, the socialist
president that Pinochet toppled in a bloody U.S.-backed coup in 1973.
Allende died in the coup. Pinochet's opponents say that thousands of people
then disappeared and were tortured and murdered during his 17-year rule.
But Pinochet was well-protected from opponents. He was surrounded by
army commanders who helped him from the helicopter as it arrived at the
medical center. Reuters reporters saw snipers on the roofs of tall buildings
around the hospital.
"We would like to take him home right away, but that is for the doctors
to decide," said Pinochet's daughter, Lucia.
When Pinochet appeared briefly at a hospital window and waved, the
crowds outside shrieked with delight.
"I feel an enormous happiness that has no limits. It is like the savior
homeland has arrived home," said Carmen Aranda, 43, who was in the
crowd at the hospital.
Elsewhere, hundreds of flags began to appear on homes, buildings and
lightposts in what Santiago Mayor Cristian Labbe called "a spontaneous
reaction by people who are happy with the return of the general."
Some Pinochet supporters stopped traffic on the streets of Santiago for
hours on Friday to celebrate his return with confetti and cheers.
The enthusiasm of Pinochet's supporters stood in stark contrast to
the frustration of his opponents -- especially relatives of alleged victims
of Pinochet's regime.
Human rights leaders said Pinochet looked in good health, adding it made
a mockery of Britain's decision to free him on grounds he was too ill to be
extradited to Spain.
"The world has been deceived because he is obviously not as ill as we were
made to believe," said Viviana Diaz, head of the protest group Families of
The fact that Pinochet could walk with the aid of a cane forced the
government, which had pleaded with Britain that he was too sick for trial,
onto the defensive.
"The fact that a person gets off a plane walking doesn't mean he is well
enough to go on trial," Interior Minister Raul Troncoso told a news
Diaz, whose father is among more than 1,000 missing detainees, promised
continue fighting to have Pinochet brought to trial in Chile.
"It is disappointing, but we should not be sad," said Diaz. "We should
continue to work for justice."
Pinochet's critics asked a Santiago appeals court on Thursday to lift the
senator-for-life's congressional immunity so that he can be prosecuted at
home. He faces 60 lawsuits.
"No Chilean citizen is above the law," President Eduardo Frei said in a
nationally broadcast address. "The Chilean courts must say their word now.
That is what a large majority of Chileans want."
"Chile has an obligation before the world to achieve justice," said Sen.
Sergio Bitar, a socialist.
No official welcome home
Chile's government, a center-left alliance that took over the country
when Pinochet handed the country back to democracy in 1990, took no
part in the welcome reception.
Frei, who steps down when socialist Ricardo Lagos takes office in eight
days, slipped out of Santiago shortly before Pinochet's arrival. His office
said he went to inaugurate a dam.
Lagos will be Chile's first socialist president since Allende.
London legal trouble started after back surgery
Pinochet was arrested on October 16, 1998 while he recovered from back
surgery in a London hospital. A Spanish judge accused him of orchestrating
a systematic campaign of torture against political opponents throughout his
dictatorship. Many of the victims were said to be Spaniards.
An official Chilean government report says 3,197 people died or
disappeared at the hands of Pinochet's secret police.
Pinochet spent most of his time in London under 24-hour guard in a rented
mansion while Spain and several other European nations and human rights
groups worked to have him extradited for trial. But Straw freed Pinochet
after an independent medical examination found the former dictator's
diminished mental capacity would make it impossible for him to participate in
his own trial.
In Europe on Friday, some newspapers wrote that the failed attempts to
Pinochet on trial were not a waste.
"Today the world is a little more just than when Pinochet was arrested,"
leading Spanish daily El Pais said in an editorial. "A jurisprudence has been
created that brings an end to impunity for criminals of his ilk."
Correspondent Lucia Newman, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed
to this report.