Alejandro Foxley, the Chilean foreign minister, said on Wednesday that information had been received several days ago and passed on to a military-civilian judicial team prosecuting Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, for other economic crimes.

No further information was available, but El Mercurio newspaper reported the gold was being held in Pinochet's name in Hong Kong warehouses of HSBC bank.

If confirmed, the find could raise new suspicions about the wealth Pinochet accumulated over his 17-year rule and further turn public opinion against him.

Foxley said: "If this information is confirmed, it would be grave indeed."

It was not clear how the information was relayed to Chile other than that it came through the foreign ministry.

Military coup

Pinochet took power in a 1973 military coup that toppled Salvador Allende. He has been accused of responsibility in the deaths of as many as 3,000 Chileans during his 1973-1990 leadership.

He was charged last year with evading taxes on an estimated $27 million hidden in more than 100 bank accounts outside Chile.

Pablo Rodriguez, Pinochet's long-time lawyer, said: "I can say with absolute certainty that this information is completely and absolutely false."

Pinochet, 90, is no longer active in Chilean politics, but remains in the public eye because of the string of court cases against him.

His defence lawyers have argued that he is unfit to stand trial due to ill health.