Capriles, Maduro lock horns in Venezuela election

Accusations and insults fly as race to succeed Chavez begins


Venezuelean presidential candidates Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles have begun the election race with scathing personal attacks even as mourners still file past the late Hugo Chavez's corpse.

Mr Maduro, who was sworn in as acting president after Mr Chavez succumbed to cancer last week, is seen as the favorite to win the April 14th election, bolstered by an oil-financed state apparatus and a wave of public sympathy over Mr Chavez's death.

"I am not Chavez, but I am his son," Mr Maduro told thousands of cheering, red-clad supporters as he formally presented his candidacy to the election board today.

Mr Chavez made clear before his fourth and last cancer operation in December that he wanted Mr Maduro to be his Socialist Party's candidate to succeed him if he died.

Mr Maduro has vowed to continue the socialist policies of Mr Chavez's 14-year rule in the South American OPEC nation, including the popular use of vast oil revenues for social programs. But Mr Capriles is promising a tough fight.

"Nicolas, I'm not going to give you a free passage ... you are not Chavez," Mr Capriles said in a combative speech late last night.

He also accused Mr Maduro of lying to minimise Mr Chavez's medical condition while he prepared his candidacy.

"Nicolas lied to this country for months," Mr Capriles said. "You are exploiting someone who is no longer here because you have nothing else to offer the country ... I don't play with death, I don't play with suffering, like that."

Within minutes, in a late-night address to the nation, Mr Maduro said his rival was playing with fire, offending Mr Chavez's family and risking legal action.

"You can see the disgusting face of the fascist that he is," a visibly furious Mr Maduro said, alleging that the opposition was hoping to stir up violence.

"His aim is to provoke the Venezuela n people."

At stake in the election is not only the future of Mr Chavez's socialist "revolution," but the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and other aid crucial to the economies of left-wing allies around Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia.

Venezuela boasts the world's largest oil reserves.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, waving photos of Mr Chavez, accompanied him at the election board's headquarters in downtown Caracas. "I'm backing Maduro because Chavez asked us," said law student Marliely Lopez, 22.

Mr Chavez's voice boomed from loudspeakers at the rally.

Shaken by Mr Chavez's death and now immersed in an ugly election campaign, Venezuelans saw some semblance of normality return today as most schools and shops re-opened after being closed for most of last week.

The official mourning period for Mr Chavez ends tomorrow.

Several million have paid their respects at his coffin at a military academy in a dramatic outpouring of grief.

Though there are hopes for a post-Chavez rapprochement between ideological foes Venezuela and the United States, a diplomatic spat worsened today when Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation.

Two US military attaches were ordered out last week, on the day of Mr Chavez's death, for allegedly conspiring with locals against the government.