Venezuela on Tuesday accused its enemies of causing ailing President Hugo Chavez's cancer and expelled two US military officers for an alleged plot to destabilize the nation.
Caracas lashed out against the opposition and the United States after announcing that Chavez had taken a turn for the worse and was struggling to breathe after contracting a new and severe infection.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro confirmed that the firebrand leader was facing "complications" and he warned that Venezuela was living its "most difficult hours" since Chavez underwent cancer surgery on December 11.
After a meeting with the country's civilian and military leadership, Maduro said a scientific commission would be formed and that it would reveal that Chavez "was attacked with the disease."
"The enemies of his nation looked for how to harm the health of our commander," he said in televised remarks, drawing a parallel with a probe into allegations that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned.
The government then announced it was expelling two US Air Force attaches, accusing them of contacting Venezuelan military officials to get information about the armed forces and to foment "destabilization projects."
A US military spokesman said it was aware of the allegations and that one of the air attaches, Colonel David Delmonico, was "en route back to the United States."
The once omnipresent face of the Latin American left, now breathing with the aid of a tracheal tube, has neither emerged nor spoken in public in almost three months, leaving the nation and the region gripped by his absence.
At the military hospital where he is being treated in Caracas, dozens of supporters prayed, held photos of Chavez and wept in the chapel of "hope" that was built for the 58-year-old leader.
"I came to pray because the news was shocking and we have to face it by not losing faith and hope," said Marta Rodriguez, a 50-year-old housewife.
"I ask God for a miracle for the president to get healthy, for him to get out of this difficult situation. The president is a very special person."
After claiming over the weekend that Chavez was still working despite his chemotherapy, the government announced on Monday that he had a "new and severe infection" and a "worsening of respiratory function."
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, reading a statement from the hospital, did not specify the type of infection nor did he give a prognosis, leaving open the question of whether Chavez will ever resume his duties.
Villegas said Chavez continues to "cling to Christ and life" and that his "condition continues to be very delicate."
The gloomy prognosis came two weeks after Chavez checked into the military hospital on February 18 following two months of treatment in Cuba.