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Britain: No Freedom For Pinochet

Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet faces the prospect of more months, if not years, under guard after Britain's top law enforcement official ruled that Spain could continue seeking his extradition.

The 83-year-old general must remain confined to his rented mansion outside London, guarded 24 hours a day, while his lawyers battle with Spanish prosecutors.

In a new ruling Thursday, Home Secretary Jack Straw said even though the House of Lords drastically reduced the case against Pinochet last month, the remaining allegations are serious enough to go forward.

Human rights groups immediately hailed the decision, saying the alleged victims of Pinochet's military regime are one step closer to justice. "After 25 years of impunity, this definitive decision hastens the day when Pinochet will have to answer for his terrible crimes," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, a participant in the case. "Dictators the world over should take notice."

But Fernando Barros, a close Pinochet associate, called Spain's case "politically motivated" and said Straw's decision was "a blow to all those trying to achieve reconciliation in Chile."

Pinochet was arrested Oct. 16 in London on a Spanish warrant alleging thousands of abuses committed during his 17-year regime.

An official Chilean report says 3,197 people were murdered or disappeared at the hands of his secret police after he ousted the country's elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in a bloody 1973 coup.

Last month, the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, ruled that Pinochet enjoyed only limited immunity from arrest as a former head of state.

The court threw out the bulk of the case against him, saying most of the charges against the general were dismissed because they predated Britain's 1988 adoption of an international law against torture.

But enough charges were upheld, including allegations that he tortured his opponents, to keep the extradition request alive.

Straw already had granted permission in December for proceedings to go forward, but wanted to consider Spain's request again in light of the sharply reduced case.

In his latest decision, Straw rebuffed arguments that Pinochet, arrested while recuperating from back surgery, was not fit to stand trial. He also said Spain's attempts to prosecute the general did not pose a threat to Chile's sovereignty or "its future democracy."

The extradition case was adjourned until April 30 to allow Pinochet's attorneys time to study the decision to determine grounds for an appeal.

Legal experts said, in the meantime, they expect prosecutors to prepare a fresh arrest warrant which probably will include some of the allegations Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon has added in recent months to bolster his case.

Garzon had no immediate comment on the ruling, but victims' relatives in Chile cheered it. "When we heard the news o the radio, we embraced in joy, we wept openly," said Viviana Diaz, representing a group whose loved ones disappeared during Pinochet's regime. "At that moment, we had our missing loved ones in our hearts, and we held a candle for each of them."

By Kristin Gazlay