Lawyers pursuing the former dictator say the indictment announced by Judge Carlos Cerda is still a major victory.

Several relatives of the dictatorship's victims cheered and embraced one another at the courthouse.

Pinochet's attorneys immediately appealed on grounds of ill-health, the same factor that has blocked earlier trials.

Now a stooped, white-haired man who walks with difficulty, Pinochet is a far different figure from the scowling soldier in dark glasses under an officer's cap who appeared at the head of the military junta that overthrew Chile's elected socialist government in 1973.

The coup set off a wave of terror and torture as the new government tried to root out communist influence by seizing thousands of suspected leftists, so many people at first that a soccer stadium was needed to hold them. Many were never seen again.

According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, 3190 people were killed for political reasons during his regime. More than 1000 others remain unaccounted for after being arrested. Tens of thousands fled their homeland to exile.

Major Achievement

Attorney Hugo Gutierrez, who has spent years seeking to have Pinochet tried on rights charges, called Wednesday's corruption arrest "a major achievement for the human rights movement".

"If we hadn't pursued Pinochet through all these years, what happened today would have been impossible," Gutierrez said.

He said it "shows there is hope" for the many Chileans who want to see Pinochet tried for the suffering inflicted by his government.

Cerda ruled that Pinochet, who will be 90 in two days, could be freed on bail if the Santiago Court of Appeals so ordered.

He added that at the age of 90, Pinochet did not pose any danger. The judge set bail at $22,200.

The charges

Pinochet was charged with evading $2.4 million in taxes, using four false passports to open bank accounts abroad, submitting a false government document to a foreign bank and filing a false report on his assets.

"If we hadn't pursued Pinochet through all these years, what happened today would have been impossible"

Attorney Hugo Gutierrez

But the indictment does not guarantee a trial.

The first report of accounts abroad came from a US Senate investigative report on the Riggs Bank in Washington, where Pinochet had $8m at the time.

Since then, accounts have been found in England, Gibraltar and elsewhere. Cerda and his predecessor in the case, Sergio Munoz, have estimated his fortune at $28m.

Pinochet's lawyers and associates insist the money came from legitimate donations, savings and interest on investments.

Human rights charges

Pinochet was indicted twice before on human-rights charges, but courts blocked the trials on health grounds.

The general still faces scores of other criminal allegations filed by relatives of victims of his government.

He also has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution in a human-rights case known as Operation Colombo, in which a judge must soon make a decision on whether to indict him for the disappearance of 15 dissidents in the early years of his regime.

Health excuses

Two other prosecution attempts were stopped for the same reason at earlier stages. Health again appeared to be Pinochet's line of defence on Wednesday.

Defence attorney Pablo Rodriguez said he "is absolutely prevented by his health to face a trial".

Some 3190 people were killed for
political reasons on his watch

Pinochet's spokesman, retired General Guillermo Garin, said Pinochet can't face trial because "he has very serious health limitations. It's sad to see a person who dedicated his entire life to his country facing this situation".

Court-appointed doctors recently determined that while Pinochet had health problems, including mild dementia, they were not serious enough to make him unfit the stand trial.

They alleged that Pinochet had tried to make his problems appear worse than they were.

Pinochet also suffers from diabetes and arthritis and has a pacemaker.

In the rare occasions he has appeared in public in the last three years, Pinochet appeared to walk with difficulty, using a cane and with bodyguards supporting his arms.

Garin said Pinochet's house in the upscale La Dehesa Santiago neighbourhood "is virtually a private clinic", with army doctors on call at all times.