General Manuel Contreras, who headed the feared spy agency that kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands during Chile's military dictatorship, has died at a military hospital while serving a combined sentence of more than 500 years for crimes against humanity. He was 86.

Contreras had been hospitalised on September 26 because of kidney problems and was later moved to the intensive care unit when his condition degenerated. He died on Friday.

Soon after the death was confirmed by the government, a small crowd of several dozen people gathered outside the Santiago hospital waving Chilean flags.

Inside Story: Tracing the shadows of 'Operation Condor'

They broke into chants of "Murderer!" and toasted with champagne in paper cups to celebrate his death.

After the 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet that ousted the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, Contreras formed and commanded the DINA spy agency and went on to become the second most powerful and feared figure of the regime after Pinochet himself.

Born on May 4, 1929, in Santiago, Contreras was a career military man who also helped organise Operation Condor, a coordinated effort formed in the mid-1970s by South America's dictatorships to eliminate dissidents who sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Contreras was among Pinochet's closest confidants early on, but the pair exchanged accusations in their final years.

While Contreras alleged his former boss amassed a fortune trafficking drugs to Europe, Pinochet accused the spy chief of acting without his consent and committing the era's worst abuses.


RELATED: The Colony - Chile's dark past uncovered


According to an official report, 40,018 people were imprisoned, tortured or slain during the 1973-90 dictatorship.

Chile's government estimates that of those, 3,095 were killed, including about 1,200 who were forcibly "disappeared."

Contreras supervised the apprehension of thousands of suspected leftists after the coup as Santiago's national football stadium was transformed into a detention centre where hundreds were held and tortured.

About 150 bodies, many of them weighed down by sections of railway track, were thrown from helicopters into the ocean and lakes, the military has acknowledged.

Source: AP