CARACAS - Hundreds of grieving Venezuelans gathered in front of the hospital where their leader Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday, weeping and chanting "We are all Chavez!" after he lost his battle to cancer.
Some waved Venezuelan flags while others held signs reading "People, Chavez and revolution, the battle continues," and chanted "Chavez lives!" as soldiers guarded the building where the socialist leader died at the age of 58.
"We feel that the father of our fatherland and many nations has just physically left us," said Francis Izquierdo, a 40-year-old municipal worker.
"He was a man who taught us to love our fatherland. The comandante is physically gone but he remains in our hearts and we must continue building the fatherland," he said with tears in his eyes.
"It was his deepest wish that we do not stop the revolution."
As the country began seven days of national mourning, Ariani Rodriguez -- a teacher holding a sign reading "I am Chavez" -- said: "My heart is broken as if a father or son had died."
"The comandante is gone physically, but his thoughts and his leadership remain with us," she said, among a crowd wearing the late leader's trademark red color and hats issued by his socialist PSUV party.
People assembled in public squares in the capital and other states, singing the national anthem, wiping away tears and holding pictures of the leader who forged a near-mystical bond with the country's poor.
"He shouldn't have died. He was the best president Venezuela ever had," said Frank Aponte, 45, a bricklayer overtaken by grief on a Caracas street. "I will go where they lie him in state, even if I have to stand in line for two days."
The government announced that the former paratrooper colonel will lie in wake at a military academy from Wednesday until a memorial service with foreign leaders on Friday.
But grief gave way to some anger as a group of 50 university students who had been staging an anti-Chavez sit-in in the middle of a Caracas street for a week said they had to run away when his supporters came after them.
The students had been chained to each other for eight days to demand the government to reveal more about the president's condition.
"There were a lot of them and we immediately ran for our lives," Machado told AFP by telephone, adding that the group burned their foam mattresses and protest signs.
Machado said the government should "follow the constitution and hold elections."
The constitution says elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies, but the government had yet to announce a date.