BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato, whose novel "The Tunnel" is hailed as an existentialist classic and who presided over a probe into the crimes committed by the nation's military rulers, died on Saturday at age 99.
"Humankind cannot live without heroes, martyrs and saints," Sabato, an intellectual known as a tireless activist for justice and human rights, once said.
His death was reported by local media.
Sabato, who trained as a physicist before becoming a writer, had three novels to his name -- "The Tunnel" published in 1948, "On Heroes and Graves" published in 1961 and "Abaddon, The Exterminator" in 1974.
Known for his bald pate, tinted glasses, brush mustache and open-necked shirts, he was viewed as a hero by many in his South American homeland.
After the end of Argentina's notorious 1976-83 military rule, Sabato was chosen to preside over the National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP), which investigated the fate of tens of thousands of Argentines who disappeared at the hands of the military -- kidnapped, tortured and killed.
The commission compiled 50,000 pages of chilling evidence of systematic kidnap, torture and rape waged against anyone even remotely suspected of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas.
Its findings and recommendations that the "Dirty War" soldiers should be tried and punished were published in 1984 in a book called "Nunca Mas" ("Never Again").
Sabato seemed ill at ease in the limelight even as he was idolized by many young people and students in Argentina. Lionized by the political left, Sabato nevertheless rejected any party affiliation.
"I don't belong to any party, I just support anything I think is good for this sickly country and denounce anything I find false, despicable, dirty, corrupt and hypocritical," he said.
He railed against the tendency to seek technological solutions to human suffering, a painful admission for a man who studied science in Argentina, France and the United States.
He embraced surrealism and abandoned science for writing. His first novel, "The Tunnel," was hailed after its release in 1948 as an existentialist classic and won him fans including Thomas Mann and Albert Camus.
Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Will Dunham