Chavez could have been poisoned

Venezuela will probe accusations that its cancer-stricken president was poisoned to death.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ligth candles while gathering in front of the Venezuelan embassy in Santiago, Chile on March 5, 2013, after knowing of his death. Picture: AFP/ CLAUDIO SANTANA

CARACAS - Venezuela will set up a formal inquiry into claims that deceased President Hugo Chavez's cancer was the result of poisoning by his enemies abroad, the government said.

Foes of the government view the accusation as a typical Chavez-style conspiracy theory intended to feed fears of "imperialist" threats to Venezuela's socialist system and distract people from daily problems.

Acting President Nicolas Maduro vowed to open an investigation into the claims, first raised by Chavez after he was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

"We will seek the truth," Maduro told regional TV network Telesur. "We have the intuition that our commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way."

Foreign scientists will be invited to join a state committee to probe the accusation, he said.

Maduro, 50, is Chavez's handpicked successor and is running as the government's candidate in a snap presidential election on 14 April that was triggered by the president's death last week.

He is trying to keep voters' attention firmly focused on Chavez to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his millions of supporters. The opposition is centring its campaign on portraying Maduro, a former bus driver, as an incompetent who, they say, is exploiting Chavez's demise.

"Let's take the president (Chavez) away from the political debate, out of respect for his memory, his family, his supporters," opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' campaign chief Henri Falcon told reporters.

Polls from before Chavez's death gave Maduro a lead over Capriles of more than 10 percentage points. Capriles lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October.

Capriles has tried to jump-start his campaign with accusations that Maduro and other senior officials lied about the details of Chavez's illness, hiding the gravity of his condition from Venezuelans.

That sparked a torrent of attacks, with senior government officials using words like "Nazi" and "fascist" to describe Capriles, who has Jewish ancestors.

In a televised message, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a letter to the "sick opposition" from the late president's daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, who has at times been viewed as a possible future successor.

"Stop playing with the pain of a nation and a devastated family," she wrote. "It is unfair, inhuman, and unacceptable that they now say we were lying about the date of his (death) ... Focus on politics, don't play dirty."

Capriles was quick to respond with a flurry of tweets.

"Never, in all these years, have I offended the president or his family. If one word has been taken thus by his family, I'm sorry," he wrote on Twitter.

"I don't offend families as they have mine. They have even called me a Nazi, when my great-grandparents were murdered in a Nazi concentration camp," he added, referring to the government.