Cuba gives Chavez hero's send-off

Cuba's leaders gave Hugo Chavez a send-off fit for one of their own Thursday, with huge crowds turning out to pay homage to the late Venezuelan leader in Havana and Santiago's Revolution Plaza.

"He left this world undefeated, invincible, victorious. No one can take that away from him," President Raul Castro said before heading to Caracas for Chavez's state funeral, which will take place on Friday.

"The Venezuelan people will know how to defend his achievements, and as ever, we will be at their side," he said in a brief televised statement.

Earlier, Castro, dressed in military uniform, placed a wreath before an image of Chavez during a ceremony in Santiago, 900 kilometers (540 miles) southeast of Havana. The Venezuelan leader died Tuesday after a long struggle with cancer.

Cuba's new number two, Miguel Diaz-Canel, led another mass turnout at Havana's vast Revolution Plaza, the iconic public square from which revolutionary leader Fidel Castro used to address the Cuban people.

"I came because Chavez will forever be a friend of the Cuban people, and I was very sad to hear he had passed away," Sara Garcia, a 59-year-old office worker in the capital, told AFP.

Other events memorializing Chavez took place in public squares across the Communist-ruled island, an honor typically reserved for historic leaders of the Cuban revolution.

In this case, tradition was set aside to remember a crucial oil-rich ally whose largesse has kept Cuba economically afloat during his 14-year-rule.

During his illness, Chavez was treated almost exclusively in Cuba, where his cancer was first detected in June 2011. He underwent four rounds of surgery, chemo and radiation therapy before returning home for the last time in February.

After Chavez's death in Caracas, the Cuban government hailed the late Venezuelan leader as a "true son" of Fidel Castro.

Cuban flags were lowered to half-mast over the colonial fortresses of Morro and La Cabana overlooking Havana's harbor, and the government ordered three days of mourning.

On Friday, when Chavez is buried in Venezuela, his passing will be marked here with a 21-gun salute.

Colombia's leftist FARC rebels, who have been in Havana for peace talks with the Bogota government since November, paid tribute to Chavez, who supported the process aimed at ending Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

"It's with his help that we are here, seeking a peaceful solution to the socio-military conflict Colombia is suffering through," said Ivan Marquez, the top negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

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