SANTIAGO, Chile – Former dictator Augusto Pinochet was fighting for his life Sunday at a military hospital after suffering an acute, life-threatening heart attack, while doctors said his condition was improving after an emergency procedure to restore blood-flow to his heart.
Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara, a member of the medical team treating the 91-year-old, said bypass surgery was ruled out after an angioplasty performed in the morning to clear a heart artery obstruction "allowed improvement in his condition."
"No bypass has been performed and we expect no open heart surgery will be necessary," Vergara said on Sunday afternoon, explaining that such surgery involves extremely high risks for someone of Pinochet's age.
"There is a trend toward improvement," he said. "He is conscious, he communicates with us and with his family."
But Vergara made clear Pinochet's condition continues to be serious "and the next 24 to 48 hours will be critical to see whether other complications appear."
He said an accumulation of liquid in Pinochet's lungs "was a secondary problem that has been solved."
Pinochet received last rites, said his spokesman, retired Gen. Guillermo Garin.
Pinochet, who was under house arrest on human rights charges, was rushed to the hospital from his suburban Santiago residence at about 2 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday, accompanied by his wife, Lucia Hiriart, after the heart attack.
Pinochet's son Marco Antonio said an emergency angioplasty procedure "virtually rescued him from death."
"We are now in the hands of God and of the doctors. My father is in very bad condition," he said.
The heart attack — which a close associate, retired Gen. Luis Cortes, described as Pinochet's "most serious health condition so far" — came one week after Pinochet turned 91, an occasion he used to take "full political responsibility" for the actions of his 1973-90 dictatorship, which carried out thousands of political killings, widespread torture and illegal detentions.
As the news of the heart attack spread, some 50 Pinochet supporters, most of them women, gathered in front of the hospital, some holding portraits of the former ruler.
"He's like a father to me, and we all owe him so much," said Julieta Aguilar, who held a small bronze bust of Pinochet.
Presidential spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber said the government was closely following the situation.
Pinochet's health has deteriorated in recent years. He has used a pacemaker for several years and was diagnosed with mild dementia caused by several strokes. He also suffers from diabetes and arthritis.
His faltering health has helped Pinochet avoid trial for human rights abuses committed during his regime, as judges dismissed cases based on his condition in at least two cases in recent years. His foes have often argued that he exaggerates his health problems.
"He is hospitalized every time he faces an indictment. That is why we have doubts this time, too," human rights lawyer Hiram Villagra told Radio Bio Bio.
Last week, Pinochet was indicted and put under house arrest for the execution of two bodyguards of Salvador Allende, the freely elected Marxist president who was toppled in the 1973 coup in which Pinochet took power. The Santiago Court of Appeals was scheduled to rule Monday on his appeal.
The indictment came after Pinochet's 91st birthday on Nov. 25, which he marked by issuing a statement for the first time taking full political — though not explicitly legal — responsibility for abuses committed by his regime.
"Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration," he wrote in a statement read by his wife.
The current house arrest is the fifth such action taken against Pinochet on charges stemming from human rights violations during his dictatorship.
The most recent indictment alleges kidnapping and homicide in connection with the deaths of two Allende bodyguards who were arrested the day of the coup, Sept. 11, 1973. Both were executed by firing squad four weeks later, the military regime announced at the time.
Pinochet faces two other indictments — one for human rights abuses and one on tax charges.
According to an official report prepared by an independent commission appointed by the first civilian government after Pinochet's rule, 3,197 people were killed for political reasons during his regime and more than 1,000 of them were never found.