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Hundreds protest over Pinochet ruling

SANTIAGO, Chile (CNN) -- Hundreds of people marched through Santiago in anger at a court ruling against trying Augusto Pinochet on human rights charges.

Police used water cannon and tear gas to break up the protest on Monday and at least four arrests were made.

Opponents of the former military ruler have expressed their dismay at the judges' decision but Chileans are still divided over Pinochet's legacy, despite the evidence of mass killings.

Pinochet had been accused of involvement in covering up 75 kidnappings and political killings after the 1973 coup that brought him to power.

Many say he should be praised for saving the nation from communism and they have welcomed the appeal court ruling.

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Chilean president Richard Lagos urged Chileans to accept the controversial ruling without protest, while Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique called for the ruling to be respected.

"What we've got to do now is respect these courts' decisions, obey their verdicts and ... not make any more comments," he said.

An appeals court ruled 85-year-old Pinochet cannot be tried on human rights charges because of his deteriorating health and mental condition.

The trial could theoretically resume if Pinochet's health improves, but that possibility is seen as remote.

Even his staunchest opponents admitted that the general will never be held legally accountable for a military operation that killed scores of political prisoners, The Associated Press reported.

"The ruling means that there is no hope now for scores of families that still expected that justice would be made," Mireya Garcia, vice president of an organisation of relatives of dissidents who disappeared after being arrested under Pinochet, told AP.

Hugo Gutierrez, one of the prosecutors, said the ruling "means that 11 years after democratic rule was restored, Chilean courts still have a long way to go to really make justice."

Pinochet's defence lawyer, Jose Eyzaguirre, lamented "that the ruling is based only on health grounds and not on legal considerations, because Gen. Pinochet is totally innocent."

One of the former dictator's sons expressed relief, Reuters news agency reported.

Pinochet is believed to have diabetes and aides say he has suffered at least two strokes in recent years.

"I hope with this ruling that our father can have a little more peace during what is left of his life," Marco Antonio Pinochet told Chilean radio.

Despite the protest after the decision was announced, interest in having Pinochet put on trial has dwindled in Chile as the legal wrangles have drawn out.

There was no repeat of the angry mass demonstrations for and against Pinochet that broke out in the South American nation during his detention in London for 16 months from late 1998.

Human rights campaigners said Chile had failed to live up to promises made abroad to try Pinochet for the killings or "disappearances" of more than 3,000 people. Another 30,000 were tortured.

Under Chilean law, defendants may be exempted from trial if they are "insane" or "demented" but the concept is based on a penal code written in the 19th century, when mental illness was little understood.

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