Caracas: Ailing President Hugo Chavez cannot return home in time for his inauguration and so will take the oath of office at a later date before the Supreme Court, the government announced.

The announcement confirming that Chavez, 58, is too sick to make it back in time for the January 10 inauguration came in a letter to the National Assembly from Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"According to the recommendation of the medical team... the process of post-operative recover must extend beyond January 10 of the current year, reason for which he he will not be able to appear on that date before the National Assembly," said the letter, read out by National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello.

The letter went on to say that, in keeping with article 231 of the constitution, Chavez would take the oath before the Supreme Court at a later day.

The long-expected decision came amid a storm of controversy over whether his current term can be extended beyond January 10, and calls by the opposition for the Supreme Court to intervene.

"I do not know what the judges of the Supreme Court are waiting for. Right now in Venezuela, without any doubt whatsoever, a constitutional conflict has arisen," opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said.

The government says the swearing-in is a mere formality that can be delayed, but the opposition says he must at least be declared temporarily incapacitated and replaced on an interim basis by the National Assembly speaker.

The charter also says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.

"There must be a response from our institutions in the face of this conflict," said Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October by an 11-percent margin but gave him the toughest political fight of his 14-year tenure.

Capriles also urged Latin American leaders -- Chavez has long been the figurehead of the anti-US left in the region -- to stay away from a rally convened by the government for Thursday in place of the inauguration.

So far Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino of Ecuador are the only ones to confirm their attendance.

"Chavez's health is no longer in our hands," said Mujica in an interview with the Montevideo newspaper La Republica. "Our function is to back the government and people of Venezuela."

(Agencies)

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