Venezuela's Chavez in 'most difficult hours' - Maduro

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cry during prayers at the chapel inside the Military Hospital in Caracas Mr Chavez's supporters have been praying for his recovery

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is undergoing his "most difficult hours", his deputy has said.

Nicolas Maduro spoke at length in a speech apparently designed to reassure citizens despite the failing health of Venezuela's leader.

He accused the US of plotting against the Venezuelan government: Two US military attaches have been expelled.

On Monday, officials said the 58-year-old Venezuelan leader had a new, severe respiratory infection.

Dozens of people gathered to pray for his health at the hospital where Mr Chavez is being treated.

He has not appeared in public since he returned to Venezuela last month after being treated for cancer in Cuba.

'Attack' on president

The address, broadcast live on TV from the presidential Miraflores Palace, showed Mr Maduro surrounded by political and military leaders in a display of solidarity.

Supporters and opponents of Hugo Chavez react to the latest health fears

He accused "enemies of the fatherland" in Venezuela and abroad, particularly the United States, of seeking to undermine democracy in Venezuela.

Speaking in a room full of dignitaries including the defence minister and the president's brother, Adan Chavez, Mr Maduro said Mr Chavez's illness was an "attack" by his enemies and called for this to be investigated.

He said one US Air Force attache, David Delmonico, had been spying on Venezuela's military and had 24 hours to leave the country.

Venezuela's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, later announced the expulsion of a second US Air Force attache, Devlin Kosta.

US Department of Defense spokesman Lt Col Todd Breasseale later confirmed Col Delmonico was "en route back to the United States".

"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize Venezuela government.," said Lt Col Breasseale.

"Further, we absolutely reject the specific allegations leveled by the Venezuelan government against Air Attache David Delmonaco and Assistant Air Attache Devlin Kostal."

At the scene

Venezuelans are congregating in a small chapel at Caracas military hospital. They are attending mass and praying for the health of the president.

One woman, Maria Cristina Rojas, shed a few tears as she came out of the chapel. She said she was worried about the announced worsening of Mr Chavez's health. "I haven't been able to sleep, I feel anguish," she said. "He has been wonderful for our country. I have faith he will get better."

People have come from outside Caracas to pray here. The chapel was renovated over the past few weeks, after the announcement of Mr Chavez's return to the country. It was inaugurated on Friday night during a sombre televised ceremony with the participation of all government officials.

Col Breasseale confirmed Assistant Air Attache Devlin Costal, who is currently in the US, would not return to Venezuela.

In recent days, the opposition have condemned what they say is the lack of clarity surrounding Mr Chavez's condition.

"The lack of precise information worries Venezuelans and fuels rumours," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition.

At the weekend, hundreds of Venezuelan students and opposition members marched in Caracas demanding full details about Mr Chavez's health.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas accused Mr Chavez's opponents of showing "the same hatred that they have shown towards Chavez all these years.

"It annoys them that he won't give up and neither will the people!," he wrote on his Twitter account.

On Monday Mr Villegas announced from the military hospital where Mr Chavez is being treated that he had suffered "a worsening of respiratory function" and that his condition continued to be "very delicate".

He said Mr Chavez was undergoing "intensive chemotherapy, as well as complementary treatments".

Hugo Chavez

  • Born 28 July 1954 in Sabaneta, Barinas state, the son of schoolteachers
  • Graduated from military academy in 1975
  • Has four children
  • Keen baseball player

"The commander-president remains clinging to Christ and to life, conscious of the difficulties that he is facing, and complying strictly with the programme designed by his medical team," Mr Villegas said.

Mr Chavez, who has been in office for 14 years, is believed to have cancer in his pelvic area, but his exact illness has never been disclosed.

He announced in June 2011 that he had cancer and has undergone four operations since then, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The president was re-elected for another six-year term in October 2012, but the Supreme Court ruled that his swearing-in on 10 January could be delayed because of his illness.

He is said to be taking decisions about the country from the hospital bed but there have been mixed messages from officials on his condition.

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