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  • 6 March 2013, 22:55

Hugo Chavez: Coffin Paraded Through Streets

A military parade has been held to carry the remains of President Hugo Chavez through the streets of the Venezuelan capital Caracas.

The country's foreign minister, Elias Jose Jaua Milano, declared seven days of mourning for the controversial socialist leader, who died at the age of 58 after losing his battle with cancer.

His coffin left Caracas' military hospital earlier for his body to be escorted through the city. It will lie in state at a military academy until a public funeral on Friday.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets with many crying, hugging each other, or shouting slogans of support.

A sea of red, yellow and blue - the colours of the national flag - flowed past some of the city landmarks as masses of supporters took part in the procession to celebrate and pay their respects to the leader they loved.

Scores of motorists in their cars and motorbikes also joined the colourful parade, tooting their horns.

Clusters of women with tears streaming down their faces clung to each other and wept near the Miraflores presidential palace. Some wore T-shirts with slogans that read: "Go forward commander!"

Nearby, men pumped their arms in the air while shouting: "Long live Chavez! Long live Chavismo!"

Reporting for Sky News, journalist Virginia Lopez, said: "Family, friends and members of the President's Guard of Honour joined the parade.

"The streets are bursting with people wearing red berets that Mr Chavez made emblematic of his rule."

Minutes before his final journey, vice president Nicolas Maduro said Mr Chavez's "spirit roams freely, filled with light protecting our people. Our people are in the streets expressing their solidarity, their feelings."

He fought back tears as he announced the death on Tuesday night in a national television broadcast.

He said Mr Chavez, who had been in power for 14 years, died at 4.25pm local time "after battling a tough illness for nearly two years".

Amid fears of unrest, Mr Maduro also said the army and police had been deployed "to accompany and protect our people and guarantee the peace".

Mr Jaua Milano said Mr Maduro would continue to run the country as interim president until fresh elections can take place in around 30 days.

Ideological allies across Latin America lined up to salute former paratrooper Mr Chavez, a standard bearer of the region's "anti-imperialist" left.

Cuba has declared three days of national mourning, with the government saying Mr Chavez had "stood by Fidel Castro like a true son".

Bolivia's socialist President Evo Morales said he was "crushed", while Argentinian Vice President Amado Boudou said "all of Latin America" was in mourning.

President Barack Obama responded by expressing hopes for improved relations with the oil-rich state, voicing American "support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government".

He added: "As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "saddened" by the death of a leader who had left a "lasting impression on the country and more widely".

Mr Chavez had been receiving cancer treatment in Cuba on and off since June 2011 - when he was first diagnosed with the illness.

The announcement of his death came just hours after Mr Maduro announced the government had expelled two US diplomats from the country.

He had said Mr Chavez's illness had been induced by foul play by "the historical enemies of our homeland".

The government announced late on Monday that Mr Chavez's condition was "very delicate" due to a "new, severe" respiratory infection.

Mr Chavez had not been seen in public or heard since undergoing a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on December 11.

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

During his time in power, the fiery populist leader declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela, crusaded against US influence, championed a leftist revival across Latin America, and over time, gradually placed all state institutions under his personal control.

The man Mr Chavez defeated in October's presidential elections, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, is expected to represent the opposition in the national polls. He called for unity and offered his condolences to Mr Chavez's family.

Venezuela's defence minister pledged the military would remain loyal to the constitution in the wake of Mr Chavez's death.

Sky's Dominic Waghorn said Mr Chavez "used a mixture of brute force, persuasion, passion and charisma to keep himself in power".

"Such was the adoration and devotion that mainly the poor in Venezuela felt for him that he was seen as this almost sort of religious figure, and his loss now leaves a huge void in Venezuelan politics.

"A lot of people say he is irreplaceable."

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