July 16, 2010 / 7:47 PM / in 8 years

UPDATE 1-Venezuela exhumes hero Bolivar's bones for tests

* Government to test remains for signs of poisoning

* Investigation could worsen tense ties with Colombia

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By Patricia Rondon

CARACAS, July 16 (Reuters) - Venezuela exhumed the remains of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar on Friday and will test them to see if he was poisoned by enemies in Colombia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rejects the traditional account that Bolivar, a brilliant Venezuelan military tactician who freed much of South America from centuries of Spanish rule, died of tuberculosis in Colombia in 1830.

He insists Bolivar was murdered by a Colombian rival, and Venezuela’s newly inaugurated state forensics laboratory is taking as its first case the death of the hero some call Latin America’s George Washington.

“What amazing moments we have lived tonight! We have seen the remains of the Great Bolivar,” Chavez wrote on his Twitter account, @chavezcandanga, after the casket was opened before dawn.

“My God, my God ... my Christ, our Christ ... I confess we have cried, we have sworn. I tell them: this glorious skeleton must be Bolivar because you can feel his presence. My God.”

In footage broadcast on state TV, a military honor guard clad in white biohazard suits, face masks and blue gloves marched on the spot alongside the coffin during a ceremony in a room decorated with a huge Venezuelan flag. (link.reuters.com/fuk97m)

Inside the casket was a smaller container wrapped in older Venezuelan flag. Chavez said that flag had been made in England and that they replaced it with a new Venezuelan-made one.

In 2006, the left-wing Chavez added an eighth star to the design of the country’s flag and reversed a white horse on it so it faced left.

In his fight against “Yankee imperialism” by the United States, Chavez repeatedly invokes Bolivar, who is second only to Jesus as a figure of reverence in parts of South America.

In April, a U.S. scientist, Paul Auwaerter of Johns Hopkins University, said he backed the theory that Bolivar most likely died from arsenic poisoning.

But Auwaerter said it probably had been caused by drinking contaminated water or using the naturally occurring poison to try to cure headaches and hemorrhoids — and he was worried that the Venezuelan government was misconstruing his research.

Chavez says Bolivar was murdered by a Colombian general, Francisco de Paula Santander, and some analysts have warned that revisiting the case could put more pressure on strained ties between the neighbors.

Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Bill Trott

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