Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died after a prolonged battle with cancer, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on national television.
The announcement came hours after an emergency government meeting following reports that the health of Venezuela’s charismatic socialist leader was failing.
“We have received the toughest and tragic information that… Comandante President Hugo Chavez died today [Tuesday] at 4:25 pm [17:25 GMT]," Maduro said in an emotional address to Venezuelans.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's Defense Minister, Admiral Diego Molero, appealed on national television for "unity, tranquility and understanding" among Venezuelans and vowed that the military will remain loyal to the constitution in the wake of Chavez's death.
Chavez, 58, who has ruled Venezuela for 14 years, has had four operations for cancer and four courses of chemotherapy in Cuba and Venezuela within a year. His fourth operation, to remove cancerous tissue, took place in Cuba on December 11.
Chavez, who was known as the most vocal US adversary in Latin America, won a new six-year term at an election in October and his inauguration was slated for January 11, but he was unable to attend due to health reasons.
Chavez named Vice President Maduro as his potential successor before going for the latest surgery in December.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said in televised comments late on Tuesday that Venezuela will hold new presidential elections in 30 days and Maduro will assume presidency during the interim period.
According to Jaua, Chavez’s public funeral will be held on Friday and Venezuelans will observe a seven-day mourning period for the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Maduro has earlier said that he had no doubt that "the historical enemies of the country sought for a weak spot to harm the health" of President Hugo Chavez.
He insisted that in due time, a scientific commission will be formed to certify whether the Venezuelan president was attacked with the illness he has been suffering for almost two years.
Venezuela expelled on Tuesday two US diplomats on alleged espionage charges.
Following the announcement of Chavez's death, US President Barack Obama issued a brief statement reaffirming the US support "for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
“As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” the statement said.