Chavez wrong on Bolivar murder theory: inquiry

CARACAS Mon Jul 25, 2011 7:14pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - South American independence hero Simon Bolivar was not murdered by Colombian foes as suggested by Hugo Chavez but may have died of accidental poisoning, according to a study ordered by Venezuela's leader.

The remains of Bolivar -- a brilliant Venezuelan soldier who freed much of the region from Spanish rule before dying in Colombia in 1830 -- were exhumed last year on Chavez's orders.

The colorful socialist leader had long argued Bolivar was murdered and hoped the committee of scientists he appointed to study the bones would prove that in time for Venezuela's celebration of its independence bicentennial this year.

The resulting investigation discovered traces of toxins that may have contributed to Bolivar's death, but were probably in medicines widely used at the time, the scientists on a government appointed committee said on Monday.

They did not rule out death by tuberculosis -- the most common theory cited by historians and authors.

"We could not establish the death was by non-natural means or by intentional poisoning, none of those who say this could prove it," Vice President Elias Jaua said.

The committee, including various foreign experts, said it confirmed via forensic tests the remains in Venezuela's National Pantheon were of the man some call Latin America's George Washington.

Medicine including traces of arsenic or a toxic plant were present in Bolivar's bones, said scientists reporting their findings in a Caracas ceremony shown live across Venezuelan TV networks on the orders of Chavez.

The socialist Chavez, who has sought to cast himself as the ideological heir to Bolivar who ruled for 12 years, had said last year the Colombian "oligarchy" had killed his idol who, despite his triumphs, died lonely, bitter and trying to exit the region.

Chavez kept up his line on Monday despite the inquiry report.

"I think they murdered him," Chavez said in a telephone call carried live on Venezuela TV.

"I assume my humble responsibility before the people and before history. I don't have proof, I don't know if we will have, but those are the circumstances."

In veneration of Bolivar, Chavez has changed Venezuela's name to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela", normally appears in front of pictures of him and peppers speeches with references to and quotes by the nation's founding father.

He returned from Cuba at the weekend, where he received chemotherapy following the removal of a cancerous tumor, singing and proclaiming poems by Bolivar.

Opposition figures say Chavez has cynically sought to boost popularity among Venezuelans by linking himself to Bolivar, who is second only to Jesus as a figure of reverence in Venezuela.

Critics say Chavez is an autocrat who carefully avoids quoting some of Bolivar's words on freedom and rights.

They said the exhumation and study of Bolivar's bones were a waste of time and money purely intended to satisfy a whim of Chavez's.

Amid the flurry of rumors and gossip doing the rounds about Chavez's health situation in recent weeks, some Venezuelans have been whispering that his cancer is a result of a curse for opening Bolivar's tomb last year.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Sandra Maler)

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