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Chilean poet Neruda's body exhumed in murder probe

Police officers and forensic experts inspect the tomb of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda inside the grounds his house-museum be
Police officers and forensic experts inspect the tomb of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda inside the grounds his house-museum be

By Rodrigo Garrido

ISLA NEGRA, Chile (Reuters) - The body of Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, dead nearly four decades, was exhumed on Monday after his former driver said the poet was poisoned under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.

Neruda, famed for his passionate love poems and staunch communist views, is presumed to have died from prostate cancer on September 23, 1973.

But Manuel Araya, who was Neruda's chauffer during the ailing writer's last few months, says agents of the dictatorship took advantage of his illness to inject poison into his stomach while he was bedridden at the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago.

"We're hoping for a positive result because Neruda was assassinated. Pinochet made an error when he ordered Neruda be killed," said Araya. Results are expected in coming months.

Neruda was a supporter of socialist President Salvador Allende, who was toppled in a military coup on September 11, 1973, nearly two weeks before the poet's death at age 69. Around 3,000 people are thought to have been killed by the brutal 17-year-long dictatorship that ensued.

Neruda was buried in his coastal home of Isla Negra beside his third wife, Matilde Urrutia.

His remains will be brought to Santiago for analysis. Some samples could be sent to laboratories abroad.

Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, better known by his pen name Pablo Neruda, was a larger-than-life fixture in Chile's literary and political scene.

While best known for his collection "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair," published in 1924, Neruda was also an important political activist during a turbulent time in Chile.

He organized a ship to bring about 2,000 Spanish refugees fleeing the civil war there to Chile in 1939, campaigned for Allende and was ambassador to France during the socialist's presidency.

The Andean country's intelligentsia frequently congregated in Isla Negra, as well as in his Santiago home "La Chascona" - so named for his then-mistress Urrutia's messy red hair - and La Sebastiana, his ship-themed home in the port town of Valparaiso.

Democratically elected Allende committed suicide in the presidential palace as it was under attack by the military, experts confirmed last year, amid accusations he had been murdered during the coup.

Chilean courts are also investigating the death of ex-President Eduardo Frei Montalva, who is presumed to have died in 1982 of an infection after a hernia operation. Some say he was poisoned by Pinochet's agents.

(Reporting By Rodrigo Garrido; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Eric Beech)

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