By Fiona Ortiz
MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's influential El Pais newspaper apologized on Thursday for publishing a "false photo" of elusive, cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, removed the image from its website and withdrew its print edition.
Chavez is currently convalescing in Cuba after undergoing surgery for cancer for the fourth time on December 11. He has not been seen publicly for six weeks, fuelling rampant speculation over how serious his condition is.
The Venezuelan government and the leader of Argentina, Chavez ally President Cristina Fernandez, condemned the publication of the photo. "As grotesque as it is false," said Venezuelan Information Minister in a Twitter comment.
The grainy photo that El Pais originally splashed on its front page on Thursday, billed as a global exclusive, portrayed the head of a man lying down with a breathing tube in his mouth.
El Pais, one of the biggest Spanish-language publications in the world and an institution both in Spain and in Latin America, said in a brief online statement that it had withdrawn the photo after ascertaining that the image was not of Chavez.
Venezuelan political opposition leaders have criticized government secrecy over Chavez's condition while his supporters have accused foreign media of being in league with the opposition to spread rumors that the president's medical condition is worse than it really is.
The handling of information over Chavez's health has become as contentious as the man himself and official medical updates have been confusing and contradictory.
"El Pais apologizes to its readers for the damage caused. The newspaper has opened an investigation to determine the circumstances of what happened and the errors that were committed in the verification of the photo," the newspaper said in the statement.
The photograph was on the paper's website for half an hour and also appeared in early editions of the print version that were then withdrawn from news stands and replaced with a new edition with a different front page, the company said.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea in Caracas; Editing by Jon Hemming)