Supporters of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have gathered in the capital to see his coffin borne through the streets. Elections for a new president are set to take place in the next month.
Chavez's coffin, draped in a Venezuelan flag, was on Wednesday brought from the hospital where he died through streets packed with mourners.
Supporters wore the red shirts associated with their late leader's "Chavista" movement and waved flags as the vehicle carrying his body made its way through the capital streets of Caracas to the military academy where it is to lie in state.
"I'm here to say my final goodbye to my president," education worker Jose Gregorio Conde told the AFP news agency. "There will never be another Chavez. He is the greatest man that this fatherland gave us."
Flanked by soldiers with red berets, the hearse moved at walking pace with loudspeakers playing recordings of Chavez singing songs. Chavez died on Tuesday at the age of 58 after a two-year battle with a cancer that was first detected in his pelvis.
Close allies of Chavez from across Latin America arrived in Venezuela on Wednesday ahead of a state funeral on Friday. They included Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner, Uruguay's Jose Mujica and Bolivia's Evo Morales. The government, meanwhile, declared seven days of mourning.
"In the immense pain of this historic tragedy that has affected our fatherland, we call on all the compatriots to be vigilant for peace, love, respect and tranquility," said Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who is to act as caretaker leader until elections for a new president can be held. "We ask our people to channel this pain into peace."
Maduro, long a close ally of Chavez, has pledged to continue his legacy. It is believed he would be unlikely to make major policy changes soon. Chavez enjoyed great popularity among the country's once-neglected poor for having used the country's oil riches to fund housing, health, food and education programs.
The possibility that Maduro might move to ease tensions with Western investors and the US government was thrown into doubt when he alleged, hours before the president's death, that “imperialist” enemies were responsible for the cancer.
Elections on the horizon
Authorities announced that elections for a new president would take place within 30 days. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles - who lost to Chavez in a presidential election five months ago - is expected to stand against former bus driver and union leader Maduro. In a condolence message, Capriles called for unity in the nation of almost 30 million.
"This is not the time to stress what separates us," Capriles said. "There are thousands, maybe millions, of Venezuelans asking themselves what will happen, who even feel fear ... Don't be scared. Don't be anxious. Between us all, we're going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves."
Chavez, who led Venezuela for 14 years, fell ill soon after the October election, which had given him another six years in power.
rc/hc (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)