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Rumours swirl as Chavez stays out of sight

Date

Laurent Thomet

All for one ... a man attends an event commemorating the violent street protests of 1989 known as the "Caracazo" on Wednesday.

All for one ... a man attends an event commemorating the violent street protests of 1989 known as the "Caracazo" on Wednesday. Photo: AP/Ariana Cubillos

CARACAS: With President Hugo Chavez still out of sight, the Venezuelan government has denied any rift with the army as it led a rally in Caracas to mark the anniversary of a popular but deadly revolt.

Thousands of people clad in red rallied in the capital on Wednesday, many wearing shirts bearing the image of the leftist leader, and others holding signs reading "I am Chavez" as they marked the massacre of hundreds of people in 1989.

The rally came as Twitter lit up with speculation - none of it confirmed - that Mr Chavez had died. Thursday's rally was the first in Caracas since Mr Chavez, 58, checked into a military hospital in the capital nine days ago after spending two months in Cuba, where he underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery in 18 months.

Real devotion ... a supporter of Hugo Chavez kisses another supporter wearing a mask depicting him during a rally in Caracas.

Real devotion ... a supporter of Hugo Chavez kisses another supporter wearing a mask depicting him during a rally in Caracas. Photo: Reuters

"Have no doubt that we will defend the beautiful work of commander Hugo Chavez Frias," Vice-President Nicolas Maduro told the crowd at Plaza Caracas square, with several military chiefs standing behind him.

The dearth of information about Mr Chavez's condition has fuelled rumours on the streets of Caracas and on Twitter, but officials insist that the firebrand leader remains in charge and that his aides are united.

The rumours last Friday ranged from unusual activity in the military's Tiuna Fort in the capital to discontent in the army over the handling of the president's health.

"Today the people and the armed forces are more united than ever, like a fist of the Fatherland," said Mr Maduro, who was named by Mr Chavez as his political heir in case he must quit and elections are held.

He warned the opposition not to "come with little stories that we are fighting".

Mr Maduro also introduced the oldest daughter of Mr Chavez, who smiled and waved at the crowd.

She and her younger sister were featured in pictures of a smiling but bedridden Mr Chavez released on February 15, the only images of him in two months.

Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president and former army captain who is seen as close to the military, denied any feud between him and Mr Maduro.

"We are brothers of the Fatherland, we are sons of Chavez," he told the rally.

Last Thursday, the government said Mr Chavez was still suffering from a respiratory infection and that the tendency was not favourable.

The next day, Mr Maduro said Mr Chavez held a five-hour meeting with aides, communicating by writing, but the opposition has asked why no images of the meeting were ever shown.

With Mr Chavez absent, the opposition is looking for a unity candidate for a possible snap election.

A group of 40 university students spent the night chained to each other in the middle of a Caracas street, vowing to stay there until the "de facto" government "tells the truth" about Mr Chavez.

"We are convinced that Maduro is lying," said Villca Fernandez, 30, a political science student at Los Andes University.

Mr Chavez is usually a fixture on state media who would never miss an event such as Wednesday's rally, which marked a February 27, 1989, revolt known as the "Caracazo," that he considers the beginning of his socialist revolution.

The city erupted in protests and riots after the government of President Carlos Andres Perez raised fuel and public transport prices, prompting a crackdown that officially left 276 dead.

Rights groups say 1000 people died.

Three years later, Mr Chavez led a failed coup against Mr Andres Perez.

The government on Wednesday launched a commission to investigate the crimes of past administrations from 1958 until 1998, when mr Chavez was first elected.

"Today, February 27, is a day to remember the pain and loss of human lives, not to celebrate," opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Mr Chavez in the October presidential election, wrote on Twitter.

Agence France-Presse

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