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Concerns growing over Chavez's health

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's prolonged silence and seclusion in Cuba following surgery there two weeks ago is fuelling speculation about his health.

Government officials have offered repeated assurances that Mr Chavez is recovering well in Havana, but many Venezuelans are wondering if they are getting the true story.

Venezuelans are accustomed to near daily speeches and television appearances by Mr Chavez, who turns 57 next month. Yet nobody has heard him speak since he talked by telephone with Venezuelan state television on 12 June, saying he was recovering from surgery two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. He said tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness. It is not clear when he will return to Venezuela.

The paucity of information has fed a stream of speculation about the president's condition as well as outlandish gossip on both sides of Venezuela's deep political divide.

Some people suspect he has been diagnosed with life-threatening illness such as prostate or colon cancer while others claim doctors botched liposuction surgery and he suffered an infection.

Authorities have sought to quash such talk but their comments have done little to calm the consternation of Chavez supporters or appease government critics who accuse officials of trying to dupe Venezuelans.