CARACAS, March 8 (RIA Novosti) - The official funeral ceremony for Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez began at the army academy in the capital Caracas at midday local time on Friday.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro and other senior Venezuelan government officials, as well as leaders from Colombia, Cuba, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, Peru and several other states attended the ceremony, which was delayed by about an hour. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Haua greeted foreign guests during a ceremonial procession.
Russia's delegation is headed by the Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko; also attending are Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the president's special representative, Rosneft oil company President Igor Sechin, along with Russia's Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov and Rostechnologii head Sergei Chemezov. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko also attended the funeral.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos broke with official protocol by greeting the crowd of Chavez's supporters, who gathered outside the academy. Local observers say this was a positive gesture in the context of the often tense relationship between the two neighbors during Chavez's tenure as president.
Ordinary Venezuelans were temporarily barred from paying their respects to Chavez during the official ceremony, but will be allowed to continue during the week. Thousands of people have gathered near the academy, shouting slogans in support of the late president and welcoming foreign guests.
Activists are handing out copies of the country's Constitution and booklets containing Chavez's speeches on nearby streets, while loudspeakers play Venezuelan national music.
Chavez died on Thursday following a prolonged battle with cancer. The populist president, who was 58, had ruled Venezuela for 14 years. Best known for his often flamboyant style and defiant outbursts against the United States, Chavez was a close ally of Russia, and trade links between the two nations have grown stronger in the last decade.
(Updated to correct third paragraph to state that Russian delegation is headed by Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko)