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Chile asks U.S. to extradite suspects in 1976 murder of diplomat

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s Supreme Court asked the United States on Tuesday to extradite three former agents who worked for Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 military dictatorship and are suspected of the murder of a United Nations diplomat 40 years ago.

In a unanimous verdict, the court asked that the United States hand over Chilean Armando Fernandez Larios, American Michael Townley and Cuban Virgilio Paz.

All three are wanted in Chile for the detention, torture, and killing of Spanish-Chilean citizen Carmelo Soria on July 14, 1976.

According to the courts, Soria was arrested as he traveled home from his office in Santiago at the United Nations’ Latin American arm. He was taken by the DINA, Pinochet’s feared secret police force, to a torture center in the outskirts of the city.

Soria’s body was later found in his damaged car in a roadside ditch in an apparent attempt to make his death seem like a drunk driving crash, according to investigators.

Townley and Fernandez Larios are currently in the United States’ witness protection program after aiding in the investigation of the murder of Orlando Letelier, a leftist Chilean exile executed by Pinochet operatives in the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1976.

Paz was released from a U.S. prison in 2001 after spending a decade behind bars for his role in the Letelier murder.

Between 1973 and 1990, an estimated 3,200 people were murdered and 28,000 tortured by the state under the dictatorship of Pinochet.

Prosecutions for Pinochet-era human rights crimes have progressed in fits and starts in Chile since the 1990 return to democracy. Interior Ministry statistics, however, show that investigations have picked up pace significantly in recent years as courts show increased willingness to revisit the dictatorship’s abuses.

Reporting by Erik Lopez; Writing by Gram Slattery; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn