Chavez to troops: Thanks for the 'loyalty and love'

CARACAS (AFP) - Lying in a Havana hospital bed as he recovers from cancer surgery, President Hugo Chavez thanked Venezuela's military for their loyalty and love, the vice president said Wednesday.

Nicolas Maduro told a military audience the president expressed this message to Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, who is also Chavez's son-in-law and with him in Cuba.

"He told us to pass on to the armed forces, from the bottom of his heart, all of his gratitude for so much loyalty from you toward the commander, a humble soldier of this country," said Mr Maduro, who saw Mr Chavez over the weekend in Havana.

"Thanks to everyone for so much loyalty and so much love," Mr Maduro said, quoting Mr Arreaza as quoting Mr Chavez, a former paratrooper who is now 58.

Mr Chavez underwent a fourth cancer operation on Dec 11 in Havana and remains there recovering. He latest complication is a pulmonary infection.

He has not been seen in public since before he left Caracas.

But before he left, he warned the armed forces to be on the lookout for any attempt, "from outside or from within," to destabilise this country, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves.

At Wednesday's ceremony at a military academy, Defence Minister Diego Molero said the armed forces remain faithful "now more than ever" to Mr Chavez.

And they will respect a Supreme Court ruling upholding a parliamentary vote last week that indefinitely postponed Mr Chavez's inauguration to a new six-year term following his re-election win back in October.

Mr Chavez's absence and silence - he is a garrulous, larger-than-life character - has unsettled many Venezuelans. Some in the opposition complain that the country is in effect, and illegally, being ruled from Cuba and with Cuban influence.

No gesture goes unnoticed as a nation so thoroughly dominated by the populist and chnmpion-of-the-poor comandante goes without him and ponders an uncertain future.

For instance, the opposition seized on just a few words - Mr Chavez's stamped signature on a decree - Wednesday to demand he clarify how sick he is and what he can and cannot do.

The official government gazette published a decree in which Elias Jaua was named as Venezuela's new foreign minister.

The decree is dated Caracas and carries the stamped signature of Mr Chavez.

Mr Henrique Capriles, a state governor whom Chavez beat in Venezuela's October presidential election, said it was puzzling that the decree on the new foreign minister carried the president's name.

"If the president of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to appear, speak to Venezuela and tell us what is happening in this government, because what Venezuela has is 'dis-government'," Mr Capriles said.

The government has been releasing only minimal information on the condition of Mr Chavez, who first came to power in 1999.

Many in Venezuela find it hard to believe the flamboyant Mr Chavez, a near fixture on television and radio for more than a decade - would not address the nation in some way if he were able to do so.

Mr Chavez's absence, combined with his decision to be treated in secrecy in strictly-controlled communist Cuba, has fuelled questions about his health and the future of his leftist "Bolivarian Revolution."