Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in first post-surgery images

BBC's Sarah Grainger: "Mr Chavez is breathing through a tracheal tube - making it impossible for him to speak"

The first images of Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez seen since he underwent cancer surgery have been broadcast by the government.

The 58-year-old is shown smiling as he lies in bed reading a newspaper, with his two daughters at his side.

Mr Chavez has not been seen in public since he went to Havana for surgery last year, on 11 December.

It was his fourth operation in an 18-month period for cancer first diagnosed in mid-2011.

Analysis

The government, which had been so quick to produce proof that President Chavez was still alive on previous visits to Cuba for treatment, took over two months this time round.

Many suspected this was a reflection of how serious his illness had become.

The information minister's disclosure about Mr Chavez's breathing explains the president's uncharacteristic silence.

But it has also given opposition leader Henrique Capriles a chance to criticise ministers for having said a few weeks ago that Mr Chavez was talking with them and telling jokes.

Just a week ago, the government announced it was devaluing Venezuela's currency - an unpopular move that has already caused an increase in prices.

With the release of these photos, the government will be hoping to improve its popularity.

Mr Chavez is shown looking at Thursday's issue of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma in some of the photos, broadcast on television by his son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza.

The government said the photos were taken on Thursday night.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said that as the Venezuelan leader was breathing through a tracheal tube, it was difficult for him to speak.

However, he said he was writing down orders.

There has been widespread speculation in Venezuela about Mr Chavez's condition, with some students holding protests outside the Cuban embassy in Caracas, demanding to know his state of health.

Mr Chavez has been at the helm for 14 years and was re-elected for another six-year term in October 2011.

Shortly before making his most recent journey to Havana, Mr Chavez suggested that his supporters should consider naming his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor.

Mr Maduro has made frequent visits to Havana to see Mr Chavez.

The Venezuelan leader is reported to have had tumours removed from his pelvic region, and has also undergone prior rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Though there have been few details about the president's exact treatment, Mr Maduro said on Wednesday that they had been "extremely complex and tough".

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