ASUNCION, Paraguay -- President Alfredo Stroessner, who as Latin America's longest ruling dictator harshly squelched political dissent for three decades and gave hundreds of Nazi fugitives safe haven, was overthrown and arrested Friday by his top military commander.
Gen. Andres Rodriguez, a former confidant of Stroessner whose daughter is married to the ousted leader's son, said he would assume the presidency but planned to return the country to democracy after 34 years of Stroessner's strongarm rule.
Chile announced Friday afternoon that it would grant asylum to Stroessner, 76, who was held under guard at an Asuncion army barracks after the coup began with heavy fighting late Thursday. The radio station Primero de Marzo and the newspaper La Ultima Hora reported Stroessner was given 12 hours to leave the country.
Witnesses saw the bodies of about 100 uniformed men outside the government house after clashes between the rebel soldiers and forces loyal to Stroessner Thursday night and early Friday, while the Catholic Church-owned Radio Caritas estimated 200 to 300 people were killed. The death toll could not immediately be confirmed.
Thousands of flag-waving residents flooded the streets of the capital to celebrate the coup.
'Thirty-four years of dictatorship, oppression, torture and fear have ended,' opposition leader Domingo Laino told the crowd.
After he was arrested, Stroessner presented his written resignation as president and as commander in chief of the armed forces, radio and television reports said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said U.S. officials welcomed Rodriguez's stated desire to return to democracy but said they were monitoring events closely.
'We certainly would hope that he would move in that direction,' Fitzwater said.
Stroessner took power in the landlocked nation of 4 million people, most of them Indians, in a 1954 uprising. Although he was re-elected as president eight times, critics have accused him of rigging the votes and stifling oppostion.
After World War II, hundreds of Nazi fugitives used Paraguay as a haven. During his nearly 35 years in power, Stroessner has harshly squelched political dissent. In recent years the United States criticized his government's human rights record.
Rodriguez, whose daughter is married but reportedly separated from Stroessner's son, said he led the coup to bring 'democratization to Paraguay.' The head of an opposition coalition said he was told Rodriguez would call elections soon.
The authoritarian leader was toppled amid reports that he had been trying to oust Rodriguez from his powerful army position.
Rodriguez, 64, commander of the 1st Army Corps, said, 'The unanimous backing of the armed forces and the people in general have made it possible for the re-establishment of the tranquility and well being of this, our dear Paraguay.'
He said 'General Stroessner has submitted' and is in good health. Rodriguez indicated Stroessner was under house arrest but was 'enjoying all his human rights in a residence of the 1st Army Corps.'
Military and political sources said several close allies of Stroessner were also arrested Friday, including his private secretary, Mario Benitez.
Radio Caritas said Interior Minister Sabino Montanaro, the top police official in Stroessner's government, had asked for political asylum in the South African Embassy.
Asuncion was paralyzed Friday morning, and tanks could be seen in the capital. No buses were visible and most businesses were closed. Radio stations advised residents to stay home and military units shut off access to some areas.
The fighting overnight appeared to be concentrated around the headquarters of the Presidential Guard, in front of army headquarters, and the capital's police headquarters. Cannon fire was heard in the capital.
Radio Caritas said the shooting broke out about 9:45 p.m. Thursday and the battle quickly shifted in Rodriguez's favor.
Early Friday morning Rodriguez received the backing of two powerful generals, giving him the support of most of Paraguay's army. Soon after, officers of the small navy and national police officials also said they had joined the Rodriguez insurrection.
'There are tanks in the streets of Asuncion and there is gunfire right now,' U.S. Ambassador Timothy Towell said in a telephone interview late Thursday.
'That was a cannon you just heard,' he said. 'Now there's very heavy firing around here and I'm going to break off our conversation. Thank you very much.'
In his statement read on radio stations in the capital early Friday, Rodriguez said:
'We have left our barracks in defense of the honor of the armed forces; for the full and total unification of the (ruling) Colorado Party in the government; for the initiation of democracy in Paraguay; for the respect of human rights; for the defense of our Roman, Christian, Apostolic, Catholic religion.'
Rumors circulated in the capital in recent weeks that Rodriguez and Stroessner were feuding over the ousted leader's wish that Rodriguez retire. Stroessner held the title of general and was chief of the Paraguayan armed forces as well as president.
Stroessner was the longest ruling political leader in Latin America. His ouster leaves Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, 73, as the last of the old-style, anti-communist South American dictators. But Pinochet, commander of the armed forces who led a 1973 coup, lost a popular vote in October that denied him a new eight-year term.
On Feb. 14, 1988, Stroessner won his eighth presidential election with about 90 percent of the vote, which opponents said was rigged. The five-year term would have kept him in office until 1993.
In 1954, when he took power after a military uprising during a period of civil strife and anarchy, Stroessner was Paraguay's eighth president in seven years.
Throughout his rule, opposition politicians were treated roughly, jailed or exiled. Political prisoners were usually held for only brief periods, however. Afterward they were released and sent abroad.
As thousands of political refugees fled for neighboring countries, exiles from other countries frequently turned up in Paraguay, seeking protection from complacent police and interior ministry officials.
Nazi war criminal Edward Roschmann fled to Asuncion from Argentina in 1977 to die peacefully, a pauper. Another Nazi, physician Josef Mengele, whom concentration camp survivors called the 'Angel of Death,' lived for years in Paraguay and was given citizenship before moving to Brazil, where he died.
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust studies in Los Angeles said 'it is safe to say that hundreds of Nazis' are still living in Paraguay, which along with Argentina freely welcomed fugitives from post-war Germany.
He said Stoessner's fall may make it easier to bring the Nazis to justice.
'Stroessner was there for 40 years. No one wanted to look for them. The police would not look for them. When democracy comes, Nazi war criminals will have to consider it a very bad day for Paraguay,' Hier said. 'Probably some are making reservations by boat or plane to get out. Some may consider moving elsewhere.
'(Stroessner) just saw to it that these people were welcome, were desirable,' Hier said.
Stroessner also offered asylum to Argentina's ousted President Juan Peron in 1955 and in 1979 gave refuge to Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza after he was toppled. Somoza was later killed in Asuncion.
Narcotics mastermind Auguste Ricord, with protection from high-ranking military officials, set up a 'French Connection' heroin smuggling operation in Asuncion, where cargoes of the drug were flown from Marseilles and shipped to Miami and New York.