MADRID: Spain's leading newspaper El Pais apologised Thursday after publishing a front-page photograph supposedly of ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in his hospital bed, and then discovering the patient was actually someone else.
The dramatic photograph, which claimed to show Chavez lying in a Cuban hospital after his cancer operation with tubes emerging from his mouth, sparked a furious reaction from Venezuela.
"It is as grotesque as it is false," Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a comment on his official Twitter account. The photograph was actually taken from a video of an operation posted on YouTube, he said.
El Pais, Spain's best selling newspaper and one of the most influential in the Spanish-speaking world, said the photograph remained on its online site for about half an hour before being withdrawn when the error was discovered.
The newspaper also halted distribution of Thursday's paper edition from newsstands, though some copies were sold.
"El Pais apologises to its readers for the harm caused. The newspaper has opened an investigation to determine the circumstances of what happened and the errors that may have been committed in verifying the photograph."
El Pais said it received the photo from the Gtres Online news agency, which claimed the image was of the Venezuelan leader.
It stressed that the caption on the photograph had emphasised that El Pais was unable to independently verify the circumstances, the place and date of the photograph.
El Pais said print editions of the newspaper could be unavailable to readers because of the interruption to distribution.
Chavez, who has been convalescing in Cuba since his fourth round of cancer surgery, has not been seen in public since December 10 and official information about his health has been sketchy.
The Venezuelan leader was too sick to attend his scheduled inauguration on January 10, but in recent days officials have said he has been making encouraging progress.