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Chávez dead - Venezuela's president loses battle with cancer - Officials call for unity

Published:Wednesday | March 6, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez. - File
2006: Chávez poses with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller after signing an agreement in Montego Bay, St James.
2005: Then Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson (right) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez celebrate the signing of the first PetroCaribe accord between the two nations.
2008: Bruce Golding (left) shakes hands with Chávez during the Summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil.
2013: In this photo released Friday, February 15, 2013, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez poses with his daughters, Maria Gabriela (left) and Rosa Virginia. - File photos

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP):

Some in anguish, some in fear, Venezuelans raced for home yesterday after the government announced the death of President Hugo Chávez, the firebrand socialist who led the nation for 14 years.

Vice-President Nicolas Maduro's voice broke and tears ran down his face as he appeared on national television to announce that Chávez died at 4:25 p.m. local time (3:55 p.m.) "after battling hard against an illness over nearly two years".

He did not say what exactly killed Chávez, although the government had announced the previous night that a new respiratory infection had severely weakened him.

Just a few hours earlier, Maduro made a virulent speech against enemies he claimed were trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy.

But as he announced the death, Maduro called for Venezuelans to be "dignified inheritors of the giant man" Chávez was.

"Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love. Love, peace and discipline."

All across downtown Caracas, shops and restaurants began closing and Venezuelans hustled for home, some even breaking into a run.

Many had looks of anguish and incredulity on their faces.

"I feel a sorrow so big I can't speak," said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk who works in the Industry Ministry, her face covered in tears.

Among the nervous was Maria Elena Lovera, a 45-year-old housewife.

"I want to go home. People are crazy and are way too upset."

In the only immediately known incident of political violence, a group of masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing revolvers, attacked about 40 students who had been protesting for more than a week near the Supreme Court building to demand the government give more information about Chávez's health.

The attackers, who wore no clothing identifying any political allegiance, burned the students' tents and scattered their food just minutes after the death was announced.

"They burned everything we had," said student leader Gaby Arellano. She said none of the attackers fired a shot but that she saw four with pistols.

Maduro called for Venezuelans to convene in the capital's Bolivar Square, named for the 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, who Chávez claimed as his chief inspiration.

The vice-president also called for the opposition to respect "the people's pain".

Nation in doubt

Chávez leaves behind a socialist political movement firmly in control of the nation, but with some doubt about how a new leadership will be formed.

Chávez's illness prevented him from taking the oath of office after he was re-elected to a new term on October 7 and under the constitution, National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello apparently would take over as interim president.

But there was no sign of Cabello on the podium as Maduro announced Chávez's death.

The constitution also says that elections should be called in 30 days. Chávez had specified that his supporters should support Maduro as his successor.

The man Chávez defeated in October, the youthful Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles, would be expected to represent the opposition.

Venezuela's defence minister also appeared on television to announce that the military would remain loyal to the constitution in the wake of Chávez's death.

Admiral Diego Molero appealed for "unity, tranquility and understanding" among Venezuelans.

The announcement stunned Venezuelans, if it did not surprise them.

Earlier in the day, Maduro used a more belligerent tone as he announced the government had expelled two United States diplomats from the country and said "we have no doubt" that Chávez's cancer, which was first diagnosed in June 2011, was induced by "the historical enemies of our homeland".

He compared the situation to the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat was "inoculated with an illness".

Chávez's inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently played the anti-American card to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a US ambassador since July 2010.

Maduro has been taking on a larger role since Chávez urged Venezuelans to choose him as president before disappearing in early December to undergo a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba.

Chávez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratroop commander, who rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his same kind of force of personality.

Chávez, long famed for his marathon appearances at televised events, had neither been seen nor heard from, except for photographs released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on December 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area.

The government said Chávez returned home on February 18 and had been confined to Caracas' military hospital ever since.