SANTIAGO, Chile -- General Augusto Pinochet, whose 17-year dictatorship carried out thousands of political killings and widespread torture, was fighting for his life in a hospital yesterday after a heart attack. But doctors said his condition was improving after an emergency procedure to restore blood flow to his heart.
Doctors initially said they planned bypass surgery yesterday on Pinochet, 91, but later ruled it out. Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara said the surgery was not needed 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 yesterday afternoon, explaining that such surgery was extremely risky 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 fluid in Pinochet's lungs "was a secondary problem that has been solved."
Earlier Pinochet's younger son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, said his father had been "virtually rescued from death" with the angioplasty. The former leader's spokesman, retired General Guillermo Garin, said last rites were administered.
"We are now in the hands of God and of the doctors. My father is in very bad condition," the son said at General Luis Felipe Brieba Military Hospital.
Vergara said earlier in the day that the heart attack was "indeed life-threatening," especially because of Pinochet's age.
Pinochet's health had been deteriorating for years. Doctors implanted a heart pacemaker in 1993 and he suffered from diabetes and arthritis. He also was diagnosed with mild dementia caused by several strokes.
Because of the health problems, Pinochet was not brought to trial over the human rights abuses committed during his 1973-90 regime, with courts ruling out proceedings at least twice in recent years as victims of his regime pressed for justice.
Last week, Pinochet was put under house arrest after being indicted in the executions of two bodyguards of Salvador Allende, the freely elected Marxist president who was toppled in a bloody 1973 coup led by Pinochet as commander of the Chilean military.
The heart attack came barely a week after Pinochet's 91st birthday on Nov. 25, an occasion 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," the statement said.
Pinochet had an angioplasty, in which doctors introduce a catheter to a blocked artery and inflate a balloon to enlarge it, restoring blood flow to the heart. Doctors said Pinochet remained conscious in the intensive care unit.