(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
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said in a brief online statement that it had withdrawn the photo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were then withdrawn from newsstands and replaced with a new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