Caracas: Hundreds of Venezuelans have held a candlelight vigil for President Hugo Chavez, praying for their leader while he remained in a hospital undergoing cancer treatment.

Chavez's supporters gathered on a wide stairway in a hillside park near the presidential palace on Friday. They lit candles at sunset and sang along with a recording of a healthy Chavez belting out the national anthem. Some wiped away tears. Others closed their eyes and prayed. Some said they felt sad, yet still hopeful that Chavez might be able to survive.

"We're praying for the President, for him to get through all of this," said Ana Perez, a seamstress holding a candle and shielding her flame from the breeze with a piece of paper. Her eyes filled with tears as she talked about Chavez. "There is no other president like this one. He's unique," she said, wiping a wet cheek. "He's going to come out of all of this, and he's going to get better," Perez said. "He's survived many hard things. He's strong."

A group of indigenous people wearing colorful dresses, beads and feathers danced around a bonfire at the base of the stairs. One man blew on a conch shell, while others shook maracas as they danced around the flames. Chavez hasn't been seen since he returned to Venezuela on Monday from Cuba, where for 10 weeks he was recovering and fighting complications following his latest cancer surgery December 11.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro said yesterday night that he and other officials had met with Chavez at the military hospital. Maduro said Chavez is continuing to undergo treatment for "respiratory insufficiency" and is breathing through a tracheal tube, which hinders speech.

"He communicated with us through various written ways to give us his guidance," Maduro said, speaking on television alongside other aides at the hospital. Maduro said Chavez was smiling and in an energetic mood, "with an immense strength of will." He said they talked with Chavez in three sessions lasting about five hours. "We came out filled with his strength," Maduro said.

During the vigil, some in the crowd held photos of Chavez while a preacher spoke from a stage, saying: "The President is going to be healthy!" Venezuela's opposition has demanded the government provide more specific information about Chavez's condition.


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