By Fiona Ortiz and Daniel Wallis
MADRID/CARACAS (Reuters) - Spain's influential El Pais newspaper apologized on Thursday for publishing a "false photo" of cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, removed the image from its website and withdrew its print edition.
The Venezuelan government and the president of Argentina, Chavez ally Cristina Fernandez, condemned the publication of the photo. "As grotesque as it is false," Venezuela's information minister said on Twitter.
The grainy photo that El Pais originally splashed on its front page on Thursday, billed as a global exclusive, showed the head of a man lying down with a breathing tube in his mouth.
Chavez, 58, is convalescing in Cuba after undergoing his fourth cancer operation in 18 months on December 11. He has not been seen in public nor heard from in six weeks, fuelling speculation about how serious his condition is.
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in the world and an institution both in Spain and in Latin America, said in a brief online statement that it had withdrawn the photo after ascertaining that the image was not of Chavez.
"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.
The photograph was on the El Pais website for half an hour and also appeared in early editions of the print version that were then withdrawn from newsstands and replaced with a new edition with a different front page, the company said.
In Venezuela, anxious Chavez supporters and opponents alike are waiting for any new image, video or phone call from the socialist leader, who is famed for filling the airwaves with long-winded speeches, jokes and withering jabs at his foes.
MANY VENEZUELANS SCEPTICAL
Officials say his condition is improving after he suffered multiple complications including a severe respiratory problem following the surgery.
But, unlike after his previous visits to Havana, officials have not published any evidence of his condition. In 2011, with great fanfare, they had broadcast footage of the president reading a newspaper and chatting with ex-leader Fidel Castro.
In the absence of any proof, many Venezuelans question the official bulletins and suspect Chavez's extraordinary 14 years in power could be coming to end. Chavez has never said what type of cancer he is suffering.
Venezuelan opposition leaders have long accused the government of secrecy over his illness, while supporters accuse "bourgeois" local and foreign media of being in league with the opposition to spread rumors that he is close to death.
The handling of information on Chavez's health has become as contentious as the man himself and official medical updates have been confusing and contradictory.
Top "chavista" officials were outraged by the El Pais saga. Diosdado Cabello, the former army buddy of the president who heads the National Assembly, said no one should think the newspaper's publication of the photograph was an accident and that the people behind it had been motivated by hatred.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas tweeted pictures of the two editions of Thursday's newspaper side by side.
"Would El Pais publish a similar photo of a European leader? Of its director? Sensationalism is valid if the victim is a revolutionary 'sudaca,'" Villegas said, using a pejorative term sometimes used in Spain to refer to Latin Americans.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Daniel Wallis in Caracas)