Pinochet Arrest Poses Thorny Dilemma for Britain

The arrest in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has plunged the British government into a series of diplomatic crises.

Potentially most embarrassing for Britain are reports that the US government has urged the Blair administration to reject Spanish calls for General Pinochet to be extradited to Madrid to face charges of murder and genocide connected to his 17-year rule.

The Guardian newspaper reported Oct. 20 that the US government had asked Britain to release Pinochet, who was arrested at a hospital Oct. 16.

The paper said Washington was worried about what would emerge at a Pinochet trial about the US role in the 1973 coup that brought the general to power.

Chile, which hitherto has regarded Britain as an ally, complained to Prime Minister Tony Blair that Pinochet's detention at the request of Spanish magistrates is illegal. Santiago says the general has diplomatic status and should be immune from arrest.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw says Pinochet's diplomatic passport, for which he qualifies as a Chilean senator-for-life, confers no special status on him because he is not an accredited diplomat. Mr. Straw has 40 days to decide whether to extradite Pinochet to Spain. A London lawyer speaking on behalf of Pinochet said he was confident the general would not be extradited.

Meanwhile in Spain, the government has asked the country's supreme court to decide whether warrants for Pinochet's arrest issued to the British government by two Spanish magistrates are valid.

The warrants accuse Pinochet of the death or torture of 94 people of different nationalities, including citizens of Chile, Britain, Argentina, and the United States, as well as Spain. Thousands of suspected political opponents disappeared or were killed under his regime. The Spanish court is expected to decide the matter within a week.

Chilean exiles in Britain are complicating the crisis by threatening to mount their own prosecution of Pinochet.

Julia Gonzales, coordinator of Chile Democratico, a London-based human rights group, said: "If we allow Pinochet to go to Spain it will be very difficult to get him back."

The arrest was made by officers of London's Diplomatic Protection Squad. London police sources say officers were unhappy at being ordered to detain Pinochet while he was recovering from surgery.

The London Times has reported that the ex-dictator had tea with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher just days before he was hospitalized.

In 1983 Chile helped Britain, then under a Thatcher government, to mount attacks on Argentina, which had seized the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic in a territorial dispute. The two former leaders have been friends ever since.

There are signs of widespread public approval of Pinochet's detention in Britain and abroad. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported receiving e-mail from hundreds of people from all over the world, with 9 out of 10 backing the arrest.

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