Chavez's body returns "home" to military academy

Mourners pay their respects as they file past the glass-topped casket containing Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, lying in state at the military academy in Caracas, Thursday, March 7, 2013. AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office

CARACAS, Venezuela Hugo Chavez has been carried back to the military academy where he started his army career, his flag-draped coffin lying in state in the echoing halls as a mile-long line of mourners came to pay homage Thursday to the larger-than-life leader.

Cannon boomed a salute each hour as Venezuelans numbering in the hundreds of thousands filed past.

"I waited 10 hours to see him, but I am very happy, proud to have seen my comandante," said 46-year-old Yudeth Hurtado, who was weeping. "He is planted in our heart."

As a band played the hymn from his first battalion, Chavez's coffin was displayed at the academy after an emotion-drenched procession through Caracas.

With the entire government, including anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, caught up in the seven-hour procession, there were few answers to the most pressing question facing the country — the timing of a presidential election that must be called within a month.

Generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez's socialist party, filled the capital's streets to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing to cancer Tuesday afternoon.

Chavez's coffin made its way through the crowds atop an open hearse on a five-mile journey that wound through the city's north and southeast, into many of the poorer neighborhoods where Chavez drew his political strength.

Supporters of Hugo Chavez line up outside the Military Academy chapel to pay their last respects to the late Venezuelan President, March 7, 2013 in Caracas.
GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images

At the academy, Chavez's family and close advisers, as well as the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, attended a funeral Mass around the president's glass-topped casket. The public then began filing past to peer at their longtime president, many of them coming closer to him than they had ever been while he was alive. Some placed their hand over their heart, others saluting or raising a fist in solidarity. The viewing lasted far into the night.

The head of Venezuela's presidential guard, Gen. Jose Ornella, told The Associated Press late Wednesday that Chavez died of a massive heart attack after great suffering.

"He couldn't speak but he said it with his lips ... 'I don't want to die. Please don't let me die,' because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country," said Ornella, who said he was with the socialist president at the moment of his death Tuesday.

Set against the outpouring of grief was near-total official silence on where Venezuela is heading next, including when the election will take place. Even the exact time and place of Chavez's funeral Friday has not been announced, nor has it been revealed where he will be laid to rest.

During Chavez's nearly two-year health fight, the government never specified the exact location or type of cancer he had.

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