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Monday, November 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Pinochet regime dumped scores of bodies in Pacific

By Seattle Times news services

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SANTIAGO, Chile — The bodies of 400 to 500 Chileans who "disappeared" under ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet's bloody rule were dumped into the ocean strapped to pieces of railroad track to make them sink, according to new court testimonies published yesterday in La Nacion newspaper.

According to the paper, 12 retired helicopter mechanics, breaking decades of silence, recounted macabre details of the operation to Judge Juan Guzman, who is investigating charges of human-rights abuses under Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule.

La Nacion's report was based on leaks of confidential testimonies provided to Guzman and his team of detectives.

The mechanics, who all admitted to participating in some of the body-dumping flights over the Pacific Ocean between 1974 and 1978, said the operation was planned and carried out by the Army Aviation Command in conjunction with Pinochet's secret police.

"There were at least 40 trips. In each one, they loaded eight to 15 bundles (corpses) aboard the Puma helicopters," the paper said.

"Some of them did not have the shape of a body but were smaller, just the remains," it paraphrased from the testimonies.

La Nacion reported that the men tied a piece of railroad track to the corpses with wire, stuck them in a canvas bag and unloaded them over water. The body of one victim, a communist activist named Marta Ugarte, washed up onto a Chilean beach in 1976, providing the first clue about the operation. The identities of the other bodies are not known.

Guzman's investigation into the Ugarte case led to the helicopter mechanics' testimony. Guzman recently charged six former members of Pinochet's military, including his notorious former spy chief, Manuel Contreras, in connection with the murder.

Thirteen years after Chile's return to democracy, the country is still struggling to piece together its recent history, despite almost total silence from military personnel who played a role in the deaths of some 3,500 people in Pinochet's witch hunt of leftists.

However, eyewitness accounts have gradually surfaced in the media and courts. In addition, an official army report in 2001 said some 200 leftists taken to secret torture camps by Pinochet's security forces were killed and "hidden" in the ocean.

Army helicopter pilots and higher-ranking army officials have denied throwing corpses into the ocean.

President Ricardo Lagos recently proposed a package of laws that would allow broader prosecution of crimes committed by government officials during Pinochet's rule.

The proposal calls for hiring judges to handle past human-rights cases exclusively, facilitating the collection of new witness testimony and increasing monetary reparations for victims.

In August, an appeals court refused to strip Pinochet, 87, of immunity.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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