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SANTIAGO - Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was rapidly recovering today from a heart attack.

However some of his critics doubt the seriousness of his illness and imply it may have been exaggerated or even faked.

Doctors said the 91-year-old, accused of murder and torture during his 1973 to 1990 rule, would rise from his sickbed and undergo some physical therapy in the Santiago military hospital where he is being treated.

"The general is in a good state of health. He's well, conscious, talking and he's eating," Dr Juan Ignacio Vergara told reporters on Tuesday. Pinochet is expected to stay in the hospital at least a week.

Pinochet, the best known of the strongmen who ruled much of South America in the 1970s and '80s, fell ill at home early on Monday, was rushed to the hospital and underwent an emergency angioplasty to reopen blocked arteries.

Marco Antonio Pinochet, the retired general's youngest son, said his father had been on the brink of death in the moments after the heart attack, which struck during the middle of the night when Pinochet was at home in Santiago.

"If he had arrived (at the hospital) five minutes later, the doctor tells me, he would have died," he told a local radio station, rounding on sceptics who accuse his father of faking ill health to avoid prosecution for human rights abuses and fraud.

Last week, Pinochet was placed under house arrest over the murder of two of leftist President Salvador Allende's bodyguards in the 1973 coup in which he seized power.

But on Monday a panel of judges on the Santiago Appeals Court ruled he should be freed on bail.

Leftists and some local media cast doubt on Pinochet's claims of ill health, even though doctors have confirmed in the past that he is frail, diabetic, has heart problems, and suffers frequent mini-strokes that have impaired his brain.

In the streets, some people wondered if Pinochet was crying wolf. "They always say he's about to die, but he never does," said Nicsia Meneses, a 19-year-old student.

Pinochet still evokes strong emotions among Chileans even though he is no longer relevant to the political scene, which has been dominated for 16 years by the center-left.

Some Chileans say he saved the country from communism by ousting Allende in a 1973 coup. Others view him as a murderer who should be tried.

Outside the hospital, supporters and opponents of the ex-dictator have gathered this week to vent their opinions.

"Chile was living the law of the jungle, it was chaos," said Pinochet supporter Eugenia Bocas, 43, recalling the early 1970s when she said Allende's government confiscated her family's land as part of its radical agrarian reform.

"Pinochet brought us back from the chaos to make us a productive country. How can we not thank him?" she said.

In contrast, one Pinochet opponent came to the hospital dressed as the devil, carrying a placard he held up toward the hospital windows. "I come to get you," it read in English.

With Pinochet apparently on the mend, prosecutors are likely to renew their bid to bring him to trail for a host of alleged crimes. The ex-dictator has been charged in at least five separate judicial cases.

About 3000 people died in political violence during his 17-year rule and about 28,000 were tortured as the military cracked down on leftist dissidents. Many more fled into exile.

Many loyalists lost faith in Pinochet when it came out in 2004 that he hid about US$28 million ($40.76 million) in foreign bank accounts. He has been charged with tax fraud and courts are investigating the origin of the funds.

- REUTERS