President Hugo Chavez died of a massive heart attack after great suffering and inaudibly mouthed his desire to live, the head of Venezuela’s presidential guard has said.
“He couldn’t speak, but he said it with his lips … ‘I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die,’ because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country,” General Jose Ornella told The Associated Press.
The general said he spent the last two years with Chavez, including his final moments, as Venezuela’s president of 14 years battled an unspecified cancer in the pelvic region.
Ornella spoke to the AP late on Wednesday outside the military academy where Chavez’s body lay in state. He said Chavez’s cancer was very advanced when he died, but gave no details.
Ornella did not respond when asked if the cancer had spread to Chavez’s lungs.
Venezuelans began seven days of national mourning after the announcement on Tuesday that their president, Hugo Chavez, died aged 58 after a long battle against cancer.
His coffin was taken on Wednesday from the military hospital where he died to a military academy he considered to be his second home.
Chavez’s body will lie in state at the tip of a grand esplanade until his state funeral on Friday.
Armed forces across the country fired a 21-gun salute in his honour. They will fire another cannon shot “every hour until his burial”, the armed forces said.
All schools and universities have been shut for the week.
Hundreds of people spent the night in front of his hospital, waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “We are all Chavez!”
A banner was hung on the hospital fence, reading “Chavez lives, the battle continues!”
The country’s vice-president, Nicolas Maduro – tipped as a likely successor – broke the news of Chavez’s death on Tuesday night, prompting a wave of grief on the nation’s streets.
Some of Chavez’s closest allies arrived on Wednesday in preparation for the state funeral, including Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Uruguay’s Jose Mujica and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
The nation’s security forces were deployed after Chavez’s death and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said calm reigned in the nation, which was once rocked by a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002.
Chavez’s illness prevented him from taking the oath of office after he was re-elected for a fourth term in October last year.
Venezuela’s closest ally, communist Cuba, declared its own mourning period for a leader who helped prop up the island’s economy with cheap fuel and cash transfers, and dubbed Chavez a “true son” of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.
A senior minister said a new vote would be called within what were sure to be 30 tense days.
US President Barack Obama – often a target of Chavez’s anti-American scorn – was circumspect, pledging that the US would support the “Venezuelan people” and describing Chavez’s passing as a “challenging time”.
“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,” Obama said.
Shortly before Chavez’s death was announced, Maduro expelled two US military attaches and accused Venezuela’s enemies of somehow afflicting Chavez with the cancer that eventually killed him.
Chavez was showered with tributes from Latin American leaders, not just his allies but also figures such as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who hailed him as a “great Latin American” and a “friend of the Brazilian people”.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Chavez had fallen “martyr” to a “suspect illness”, while hailing his close ally for “serving the people of Venezuela and defending human and revolutionary values.”
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said he was “conveying condolences” to the Venezuelan president’s “family and the people of Venezuela”, Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, said.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, also issued as statement describing Chavez’s death as a “tragedy”.
“He was a great politician for his country and for the world as a whole,” Churkin said.
Meanwhile, Morales, the Bolivian president and one of Chavez’s closest allies in Latin America and most loyal disciples, declared that “Chavez is more alive than ever”.
“Chavez will continue to be an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation,” he said on Tuesday in a televised speech.
“Chavez will always be present in all the regions of the world and all social sectors.”