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Decades after death, Chile's Neruda to be exhumed after accusation of murder

* Poet's driver says he was poisoned first days of dictatorship
/ Source: Reuters

* Poet's driver says he was poisoned first days of dictatorship

* Neruda's body rests in coastal home beside third wife

* Nobel laureate to be exhumed in early April, judge says

SANTIAGO, March 4 (Reuters) - The body of Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, dead nearly four decades, will be exhumed after his former driver declared the poet was poisoned under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, a judge said on Monday.

Neruda, famed for his passionate love poems and staunch communist views, is presumed to have died from prostate cancer on Sept. 23, 1973.

But Manuel Araya, who was Neruda's chauffer during the sick writer's last few months, says agents of the dictatorship took advantage of his ailment to inject poison into his stomach while he was bedridden at the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago.

Neruda was a supporter of socialist President Salvador Allende, who was toppled in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, nearly two weeks before the poet's death at age 69. Around 3,000 people are thought to have been killed by the brutal 17-year long Pinochet dictatorship that ensued.

Neruda is buried in his windswept, coastal home of Isla Negra beside his third wife, Matilde Urrutia. He will be dug up during the first half of April, Judge Mario Carroza said.

Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, better known by his pen name Pablo Neruda, was a larger-than-life fixture in Chile's literary and political scene.

While best known for his intense collection "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair," published in 1924, Neruda was also an important political activist during a turbulent time in Chile.

He organized a ship to bring around 2,000 Spanish refugees fleeing the civil war there to Chile in 1939, campaigned for Allende and was ambassador to France during the socialist's presidency.

The Andean country's intelligentsia frequently congregated in Isla Negra, as well as in his Santiago home 'La Chascona'- so named for his then-mistress Urrutia's messy red hair - and La Sebastiana, his ship-themed home in the port town of Valparaiso.

The same forensic experts who exhumed Allende will likely examine Neruda, Carroza added.

Democratically elected Allende committed suicide in the presidential palace during the military's attack, experts confirmed last year, amid accusations he had been murdered during the coup.

Chilean courts are also investigating the death of ex-President Eduardo Frei Montalva, who is presumed to have died in 1982 of an infection after a hernia operation. Some say he was poisoned by Pinochet's agents. (Reporting By Erik Lopez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Philip Barbara)