SANTIAGO, Chile – The remains of deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende were removed from his tomb Monday for an autopsy to determine whether he committed suicide or was assassinated during the 1973 military coup that ousted the leftist leader.
An international team of experts in forensic pathology will now study his remains at the request of Allende's family and investigative Judge Mario Carroza, who ordered the review after discrepancies were found between initial police and military reports on his alleged suicide. Experts hope bone fragments will show how many weapons were involved in his death.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet's overthrow of the hemisphere's first elected socialist leader began nearly 17 years of heavy-handed dictatorship in which thousands of suspected leftists were kidnapped, tortured and killed.
Allende's casket was pulled from the family's crypt in the General Cemetery in Chile's capital. Allende's two daughters were there as well, each carrying a rose on the frigid autumn morning.
"Our conviction is that President Allende took the decision to die, as an act of political coherence in defense of the mandate that was given him by the people," said Sen. Isabel Allende, who gently laid her hand on the casket, draped with a Chilean flag, during the somber procedure. She didn't take any questions.
The Allende family has trusted the version told by the only apparent eyewitness, Dr. Patricio Guijon, who was one of Allende's doctors and shared his final moments on Sept. 11, 1973, as the presidential palace was under furious attack. Allende had ordered his comrades to surrender, but instead of following them out, went alone into the Hall of Independence on the second floor.
Guijon said he too stepped away from the rest, to grab his gas mask, and happened to look into the hall at the moment Allende pulled the trigger of an AK-47.
"What I saw was the body rising up from the impact of the assault weapon, which was a weapon of war, and I ran there and saw there was nothing I could do," Guijon told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
Guijon's account supported the official version put out by the military — that Allende committed suicide using the gun his friend Fidel Castro had given him.
But doubts arose immediately, partly because Pinochet's military rushed his initial autopsy, performed in an irregular way only hours after his death, and then secretly buried Allende in a closed casket. Also, many prominent leftists refused to believe their martyred hero would take his own life.
The exhumation took about 45 minutes Monday morning. His body was carried a short distance to the Legal Medical Service, Chile's official coroner's office. Carroza said Allende's daughters have already provided blood samples to help confirm the identity through DNA analysis at a foreign laboratory.
"It's necessary to open the casket, see the condition of the remains, analyze any other related evidence such as clothing, etc., to pursue the questions," said the center's director, Dr. Patricio Bustos. He said it could take until early next year for the 12-member forensic team to determine the cause of death.
This is the second exhumation of Allende's body. He was buried during a rapid nighttime ceremony with only his widow present in a crypt near Chile's coast, where the casket remained for 17 years. Then, with democracy's return in 1990, his remains were moved to Santiago. Experts disagree on how much damage the corpse suffered in that move, which was complicated because the casket had fallen apart.