UPDATE 2-Spain newspaper sorry for 'false photo' of Chavez

(Adds quotes, details, background, Caracas dateline)

MADRID/CARACAS, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Spain's influential El

Pais newspaper apologised on Thursday for publishing a "false

photo" of cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,

removed the image from its website and withdrew its print

edition.

The Venezuelan government and the president of Argentina,

Chavez ally Cristina Fernandez, condemned the publication of the

photo. "As grotesque as it is false," Venezuela's information

minister said on Twitter.

The grainy photo that El Pais originally splashed on its

front page on Thursday, billed as a global exclusive, showed the

head of a man lying down with a breathing tube in his mouth.

Chavez, 58, is convalescing in Cuba after undergoing his

fourth cancer operation in 18 months on Dec. 11. He has not been

seen in public nor heard from in six weeks, fuelling speculation

about how serious his condition is.

El Pais, one of the biggest Spanish-language publications in

the world and an institution both in Spain and in Latin America,

said in a brief online statement that it had withdrawn the photo

after ascertaining that the image was not of Chavez.

"El Pais apologises to its readers for the damage caused.

The newspaper has opened an investigation to determine the

circumstances of what happened and the errors that were

committed in the verification of the photo," the newspaper said.

The photograph was on the El Pais website for half an hour

and also appeared in early editions of the print version that

were then withdrawn from newsstands and replaced with a new

edition with a different front page, the company said.

In Venezuela, anxious Chavez supporters and opponents alike

are waiting for any new image, video or phone call from the

socialist leader, who is famed for filling the airwaves with

long-winded speeches, jokes and withering jabs at his foes.

MANY VENEZUELANS SCEPTICAL

Officials say his condition is improving after he suffered

multiple complications including a severe respiratory problem

following the surgery.

But, unlike after his previous visits to Havana, officials

have not published any evidence of his condition. In 2011, with

great fanfare, they had broadcast footage of the president

reading a newspaper and chatting with ex-leader Fidel Castro.

In the absence of any proof, many Venezuelans question the

official bulletins and suspect Chavez's extraordinary 14 years

in power could be coming to end. Chavez has never said what type

of cancer he is suffering.

Venezuelan opposition leaders have long accused the

government of secrecy over his illness, while supporters accuse

"bourgeois" local and foreign media of being in league with the

opposition to spread rumours that he is close to death.

The handling of information on Chavez's health has become as

contentious as the man himself and official medical updates have

been confusing and contradictory.

Top "chavista" officials were outraged by the El Pais saga.

Diosdado Cabello, the former army buddy of the president who

heads the National Assembly, said no one should think the

newspaper's publication of the photograph was an accident and

that the people behind it had been motivated by hatred.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas tweeted pictures of

the two editions of Thursday's newspaper side by side.

"Would El Pais publish a similar photo of a European leader?

Of its director? Sensationalism is valid if the victim is a

revolutionary 'sudaca,'" Villegas said, using a pejorative term

sometimes used in Spain to refer to Latin Americans.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Daniel Wallis in

Caracas)

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