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Reaction To Pinochet Decision Mixed

January 12, 2000

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ With Chileans divided over the legacy of Augusto Pinochet and a vote just days away, the country’s two presidential candidates want to avoid the issue _ even after the apparent collapse of a bid to try the former dictator in Spain.

Britain’s announcement Tuesday that Pinochet is too ill to stand trial raised cheers from Pinochet supporters in Chile, while his opponents lamented that the general blamed for the death and disappearance of thousands of political enemies would escape justice.

However, the ruling was expected to have little impact on a presidential run-off election scheduled for Sunday that pits a longtime Pinochet opponent against a supporter of the general.

``Pinochet belongs to the past. Let’s look at the future,″ said socialist Ricardo Lagos, the candidate for the pro-government center-left coalition.

His right-wing rival, Joaquin Lavin, did not immediately react. One of Lavin’s aides said only that the candidate was ``aware of the news and satisfied.″

Lavin, who was a firm supporter of Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship, successfully sought to distance himself from the former dictator during his election campaign. He, like Lagos, has insisted, ``Pinochet is in the past.″

Outgoing President Eduardo Frei said Lavin’s campaign strategy sought ``to hide Pinochet,″ who has been in police custody in London since October 1998.

That strategy has angered some Pinochet loyalists. After Britain’s announcement, a nephew of the general, Jorge Townsend Pinochet, said it would now backfire against Lavin in the run-off vote. ``Lavin is now to be badly punished by voters for his attitude to Pinochet,″ he said.

Some analysts believe a closer identification with Pinochet and his regime would have hurt Lavin, who last Dec. 12 posted a major surprise by holding Lagos to a virtual draw in the polls, forcing the runoff.

In general, however, little or no impact on the election was expected. Pinochet loyalists pointed out that he would almost surely not be back in Chile before the vote.

``Let’s not exaggerate,″ Alfonso Marquez de la Plata, one of Pinochet’s closest associates, told The Associated Press. ``It is an important step, but just a first one. I do not see how it could influence Sunday’s vote.″

Christian Democratic Sen. Gabriel Valdes, a leading pro-government figure, said ``this will in no way influence the election.″

British Home Secretary Jack Straw said he was inclined not to extradite Pinochet to Spain after a medical team found the 84-year-old general unfit to stand trial _ though he said he would hear final arguments from all sides before making a decision.

Pinochet has been under police custody in London on a warrant by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who wants to try him for human rights abuses during his 1973-90 dictatorship.

Lagos has opposed a trial in Spain, saying that if Pinochet is prosecuted it should be in Chile.

An official Chilean government report says 3,197 people died or disappeared after Pinochet led a coup to topple the elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende.

Update hourly