Remains of revolutionary hero exumed

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Hugo Chavez opened the coffin of his idol Simon Bolivar as Venezuela investigates the president's suspicions of foul play in the South American independence hero's death nearly two centuries ago.

Ms Chavez announced the exhumation of Bolivar's remains and displayed the intact skeleton briefly on national television, saying he wept when he saw the bones of the inspiration for his Bolivarian Revolution.

While historians generally concluded that Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, Mr Chavez has another theory - that Bolivar was murdered - even though he acknowledges it may not be possible to prove.

State television showed footage of white-clad officials opening the coffin.

Specialists will carry out DNA testing on the remains, which were well-preserved and include teeth in "perfect" shape, hair, remnants of a shirt and boots, Mr Chavez said.

Those who opened the coffin wore surgical gloves, hair nets and gas masks.

Mr Chavez interrupted a speech late yesterday to show footage of them rolling back a black cloth to reveal the skeleton while the national anthem played.

"Viva Bolivar," Mr Chavez said. "It's not a skeleton. It's the Great Bolivar, who has returned."

Mr Chavez opened Bolivar's tomb unannounced, spreading the news on Twitter shortly after midnight: "What impressive moments we have lived tonight!! We have seen the remains of the Great Bolivar!

"Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air ... You awake every hundred years when the people awaken," Mr Chavez continued. "I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance."

The president often speaks under a portrait of "The Liberator" and quotes his words.

Mr Chavez also renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and said he's creating a socialist system based on Bolivar's ideals.

Mr Chavez has sometimes raised a sword that belonged to Bolivar at public events, and he views his presidency as a modern extension of Bolivar's struggle to liberate and unite Latin America.

"That glorious skeleton has to be Bolivar, because his flame can be felt. My God," Mr Chavez said in another tweet. "Bolivar lives... We are his flame!"

Bolivar's remains have been kept since 1876 at the National Pantheon in Caracas, where foreign leaders visiting Mr Chavez often pay homage at the tomb with flower-laying ceremonies.