His bout of illness comes just days before an appeals court ruling on whether to uphold his indictment and arrest for crimes committed during his 17-year rule.

General Pinochet suffered a stroke “with loss of consciousness”, Lionel Gomez Serey, the medical director of the Military Hospital of Santiago, said yesterday in a statement.

The 89-year-old has a history of health problems that include diabetes and several minor strokes.

General Pinochet was feeling ill and his doctor “took him to the hospital for an examination as a precautionary measure. That is all,” said retired General Guillermo Garin, a loyal Pinochet supporter.

He denied any connection between the hospital visit and Pinochet’s legal troubles.

However human rights lawyers say the illness is a sham to try to influence an imminent court decision.

Judge Juan Guzman Tapia has ordered the arrest of Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, for his role in Operation Condor, an alliance of 1970s-era South American dictatorships to eliminate opponents.

The Santiago Court of Appeals said it would decide tomorrow on a defence petition to drop the charges, based on a July 2002 Supreme Court finding that Pinochet suffered from mild dementia and was unable to stand trial.

The case could put Pinochet in the dock for the first time for human rights abuses conducted during his rule, a prospect long awaited by many who claim to have suffered under his strong-arm tactics.

The youngest of Pinochet’s five children, Marco Antonio Pinochet, told reporters that he wants the judge to go to the hospital “to confirm how bad” his father is doing.

Judge Tapia “believes this is a show”, he said, adding that his father’s stroke “was stronger than the last ones due to the stress that he has been suffering”.

The judge argues that new information has emerged since the 2002 Supreme Court finding of Pinochet’s “mild dementia” that prevented him from facing trial in an earlier case.

In November 2003, Pinochet showed no hint of dementia when interviewed by a US television station, even joking and describing himself as feeling like “an angel”.

General Pinochet had delivered clear and coherent answers on economic, political and social issues during the interview, Judge Tapia said.