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Tears and fears as a nation mourns loss of its leader

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A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez cries as she learns that Chavez has died through an announcement by the vice president in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez died on Tuesday at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. During more than 14 years in office, Chavez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. He polarized Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into Venezuelan nationalism to win broad support, particularly among the poor. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez cries as she learns that Chavez has died through an announcement by the vice president in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez died on Tuesday at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. During more than 14 years in office, Chavez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. He polarized Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into Venezuelan nationalism to win broad support, particularly among the poor. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

AP

A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez cries as she learns that Chavez has died through an announcement by the vice president in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez died on Tuesday at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. During more than 14 years in office, Chavez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. He polarized Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into Venezuelan nationalism to win broad support, particularly among the poor. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

SOME in anguish, some in fear, Venezuelans raced for home and stocked up on food and water after the government announced the death of President Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life 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 Chavez died at 4.25pm local time "after battling hard against an illness over nearly two years".

He did not say what exactly killed Chavez (58) although the government had announced the previous night that a severe new respiratory infection had severely weakened him.

A few hours later, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua affirmed one of Chavez's final wishes: Maduro would be interim president and then be the ruling party's candidate to carry on Chavez's populist "revolution" in elections to be called within 30 days.

It was a day fraught with mixed signals, some foreboding and some violent. Just a few hours before announcing Chavez's death, Maduro made a virulent speech against enemies he claimed were trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy.

And he said two US military attaches had been expelled for trying to destabilise the nation.

In announcing the death of the former army paratrooper who wielded Venezuela's oil wealth to benefit the poor and win friends regionally, Maduro shifted tone.

He called on Venezuelans to be "dignified heirs of the giant man" Chavez 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."

The government declared seven days of mourning. 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. "He was the best this country had.

"I hope the country calms down and continues the work that he left us, continues in unity and the progress continues," Barrios added.

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."

There were several incidents of political violence.

In one, 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 Chavez's health.

Outside the military hospital, where Chavez's remains were visited by loved ones and confederates, an angry crowd attacked a Colombian TV reporter.

"They beat us with helmets, with sticks, men, women, adults," Carmen Andrea Rengifo said on RCN TV.

Maduro and other government officials have recently railed against international media, not RCN, however, for allegedly reporting rumours about Chavez's health.

After nightfall, several hundred people gathered at Bolivar Square, a symbolic place for Chavistas because it has huge nine-meter-tall statue of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century independence hero who Chavez claimed as his chief inspiration.

Some arrived singing Venezuela's national anthem and holding up posters of Chavez.

Many chanted "I am Chavez" which had been a campaign slogan of the president.

Maduro, who had urged people to meet at the square, called on the opposition to respect "the people's pain".

"This is the moment to think of our families, of our country," he said.

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

Chavez's illness prevented him from taking the oath of office after he was re-elected to a new term on October 7 and the constitution says the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, should take over as interim president under such circumstances.

But Jaua said Maduro would assume the rule as that was Chavez's will.

Chavez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control.

The campaign for the upcoming election to replace him, though undeclared, has nevertheless already begun.


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