Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 91, the former Chilean dictator whose government murdered and tortured thousands during his repressive 17-year rule, died yesterday at a Santiago military hospital of complications from a heart attack, leaving incomplete numerous court cases that had sought to bring him to justice.

Pinochet assumed power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody coup supported by the United States that toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who had pledged to lead his country "down the democratic road to socialism."

First as head of a four-man military junta and then as president, Pinochet served until 1990, leaving a legacy of abuse that took successive governments years to catalogue. According to a government report that included testimony from more than 30,000 people, his government killed at least 3,197 people and tortured about 29,000. Two-thirds of the cases listed in the report happened in 1973.

An austere figure who claimed to be guided by "the spiritual force of God as a believer," Pinochet regarded himself as a soldier rather than a politician. With his stern visage and fondness for military uniforms and dark glasses, he seemed to personify implacable authority. He was both an opponent of communism and a critic of "orthodox democracy," which he said was "too easy to infiltrate and destroy."

"I would like to be remembered as a man who served his country, who served Chile throughout his entire life on this earth," he once told an interviewer. "And what he did was always done thinking about the welfare of Chile and never sacrificing my tradition to hand it to other countries."

Pinochet relinquished the presidency in 1990, but he retained the powerful position of head of the army until 1997, when he became a senator for life. He gave up that position in 2002, claiming mild dementia and physical infirmities -- ailments that helped him avoid trials in hundreds of court cases filed against him in recent years.

But legal actions against Pinochet had gathered momentum in the two years preceding his death, as courts locked several of his key subordinates behind bars and raised hopes among victims' families that Pinochet would meet a similar fate. He had been placed under house arrest in Santiago five times, most recently last month in connection with the murders of two of Allende's bodyguards.

Throughout his later years, Pinochet retained loyal supporters, who credited his government with instituting a fiscal discipline that helped make Chile's economy the region's strongest. But he lost many of those backers after multiple probes in recent years revealed financial corruption, including the discovery of millions of dollars in state funds held in numerous secret overseas accounts, among them several at the former Riggs Bank in Washington. As recently as October, Chilean investigators announced the discovery of 10 tons of gold, worth an estimated $160 million, in Pinochet's name in a Hong Kong bank.

Pinochet remained defiant in the face of the accusations, consistently refusing to apologize for his actions as president. But during his 91st birthday celebration last month, his wife read a statement that indicated the authoritarian took "political responsibility" for his government. The vague nature of the statement did little to appease the families of his victims.

"Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all," Pinochet's statement read. "I take political responsibility for everything that was done."

Among the crimes attributed to Pinochet during his reign were several high-profile murders that stretched beyond Chile's borders, many carried out by the Directorate of National Intelligence, or DINA, a fear-inspiring secret police agency that Pinochet organized in 1974.

Prosecutors in Washington in 1999 began investigating Pinochet's possible role in the September 1976 car bombing on Embassy Row that killed Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister, and his 25-year-old American assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Six people were imprisoned for the attack, but the case was reopened after Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 and held for 17 months on a warrant seeking his extradition to Spain on charges of murdering and torturing Spanish citizens in Chile.

His arrest set off a chain of events that led to his return in 1999 to Chile, where the Supreme Court stripped him of immunity the following year. However, a court ruling in 2002 acknowledged that he had vascular dementia and prevented the cases from going to trial. Chile's courts reversed the ruling of dementia in 2004, deeming him fit to stand trial.

Court filings against Pinochet followed at a rapid pace, and various court rulings toggled back and forth on his legal status. He was stripped of immunity in the case of Gen. Carlos Prats, his predecessor as head of the army, who was assassinated along with his wife in a 1974 car bombing in Argentina.

Last year, another court ruling affirmed his immunity. However, several other cases of human rights abuses were progressing through the court system at the time of his death, including one that charged him with the mass kidnappings and tortures at the infamous Villa Grimaldi prison on the outskirts of Santiago.

To his supporters, Pinochet was a patriot who saved his country from political and economic chaos under the threat of communism, restored order and led it into a period of unprecedented prosperity. In their view, the harsh measures taken under his leadership were justified by the violence of the opposition and the threat of civil war. Finally, they credited Pinochet with restoring the country to civilian leadership under democratic and constitutional principles.

Christian Labbé, a former army colonel and one of Pinochet's closest advisers, told The Washington Post last year that Pinochet had accepted the likelihood that he would die an outcast in his own country, with his achievements under attack by his opponents.

"He knows very well that these things happen to great men," Labbé said. "The great men need to wait for history's judgment, not [current] justice."

The first widespread international backlash against Pinochet followed the Letelier car bombing in 1976. The United States suspended all military aid for several years. Chile was condemned in the United Nations and the European Union. Pinochet disbanded DINA but reorganized the secret police under another name. The Chilean government eventually agreed to pay compensation to the United States but never acknowledged official complicity.

In 1978, Michael Townley, a former CIA employee who worked for DINA, was convicted of placing the bomb on Letelier's car. He implicated Gen. Manuel Contreras, the DINA commander, and Col. Pedro Espinosa, the DINA director of operations. In 1987, army Capt. Armando Fernando Larios, a former DINA operative, surrendered to U.S. authorities and quoted Contreras as saying Pinochet personally had ordered the attack, but offered no direct evidence. In 1993, a Chilean court sentenced Contreras and Espinosa to prison.

In 1982, the movie "Missing" dramatized the fate of two Americans, Charles Horman, 31, and Frank Teruggi, 24, who were killed by Chilean officials in 1973. Those cases are still being litigated.

Though the abuses in Chile lessened considerably in the later years of Pinochet's government, periods of violence and repression occasionally flared throughout his rule. In 1986, for example, the Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodríguez, or FPMR, an organization with links to the communists, announced it was abandoning "peaceful protest" in favor of violence and sabotage. Volodia Teitelboim, the Chilean communist leader, announced on Radio Moscow that it would be a year of "titanic battles."

On July 2, during a general strike, an army patrol seized Rodrigo Rojas, an 18-year-old photographer who lived in Washington, and Carmen Gloria Quintana, 19, and set them on fire. Rojas died four days later, but Quintana survived and was blessed by Pope John Paul II, who visited Chile in 1987. The army at first denied responsibility, but a judge in 1989 sentenced an army captain to 300 days in prison for the attack.

On Sept. 7, the FPMR attempted to assassinate Pinochet as he was driven to Santiago from his country retreat. He escaped unharmed when his driver sped from the scene in reverse. Five bodyguards were killed and 12 were wounded. In retaliation, security agents abducted four communists from their homes and killed them. More than 50 leftists were arrested. The government declared a state of siege.

In the 1980s, Pinochet's government promulgated a new constitution that provided for a plebiscite in 1988 on whether he should continue in office. He received 43 percent of the vote. He declined to be a candidate in a presidential election the following year, which was won by Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, who took office in 1990.

Chile's current president, Michelle Bachelet, was tortured alongside her mother by Pinochet's government in 1975; her father had been arrested and tortured, and he died of a heart attack in prison shortly after the coup. Bachelet's government announced Sunday that Pinochet would not receive a state funeral usually due former presidents. Pinochet's son Marco Antonio Pinochet said his body would be cremated because his father feared a tomb would be desecrated by his enemies.

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born into an upper-middle-class family in Valparaiso, Chile, on Nov. 25, 1915. After graduating from the Chilean military academy in 1936 and receiving a commission in the infantry, he studied law and social sciences at the University of Chile in Santiago.

He had several appointments as an instructor in military schools. He was the author of standard texts on Chile's geography and its history. In the 1950s, he was assigned as a military attache in Washington and Quito, Ecuador. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1968.

As Chile's 1970 presidential election approached, U.S. officials became increasingly concerned about the prospects of Allende, a Socialist, winning. President Richard M. Nixon directed the CIA to take steps to ensure that this did not happen. But when the ballots were counted, Allende had eked out a bare plurality of 36.3 percent of the vote against two other candidates.

In Nixon's memoirs, he said he quoted an informant who told him that Latin America could become "a red sandwich" with Cuba on one side and Chile on the other. He directed the CIA to "make the Chilean economy scream."

A key part of Allende's program was the nationalization of industry, including U.S.-owned copper companies, and the redistribution of land. By 1973, inflation was soaring and the economy was further crippled by CIA-supported strikes in the trucking industry. The government also was unable to control unofficial land expropriations by leftist groups operating on their own.

In an effort to shore up his government, Allende sought support from the army, which had a long tradition of standing aside from politics in Latin America's longest continuous democracy. Among other things, he put Pinochet in command of the army.

Nineteen days later the coup began. Allende died in the Moneda Palace, the presidential residence and office. There were conflicting reports about whether he committed suicide or was killed by government troops.

Pinochet reportedly had a minor role in planning the coup, but he was a member of a four-man junta that took control immediately afterward. He became president and sole ruler of the country in 1974.

Pinochet ended the nationalizations and returned many businesses and much land to private ownership. Although not an economist, he embraced the free trade policies of Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. He gave free rein to a group of young Chilean economists who had been trained by Friedman and who were known as "the Chicago boys."

Pinochet's survivors include his wife, Lucia Hiriart Pinochet, and five children.

J.Y. Smith, a former obituary editor of The Washington Post, died in January.