China described Hugo Chavez as a "great friend of the Chinese people" yesterday after the Venezuelan president's death plunged the oil-rich country into uncertainty.
Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who struggled to hold back tears as he announced his mentor's death on Tuesday, said armed forces and police had been deployed "to accompany and protect our people and guarantee the peace".
Venezuela, still deeply divided after an acrimonious election in October, declared a week of national mourning, and a senior minister said a new vote would be called within what were sure to be 30 tense days.
Chavez, known for his leftist policies, sought close ties with China's Communist authorities in a bid to reduce his country's dependence on the US, and Venezuela now sells some 640,000 barrels of oil a day to China.
In turn, Beijing has extended at least US$30 billion in credit to Caracas.
"President Chavez was a great leader of Venezuela as well as a great friend of the Chinese people and has made an important contribution to friendly and co-operative relations between China and Venezuela," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, adding Beijing was willing to consolidate strategic partnership ties with Caracas.
President Hu Jintao and soon-to-be-installed leader Xi Jinping sent personal condolence messages to Maduro after the 58-year-old leader's death from cancer, she added.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Maduro would take over as interim leader pending the next election, declaring: "It is the mandate that comandante President Hugo Chavez gave us."
Venezuela's closest ally, communist Cuba, declared its own mourning period for the leader, while US President Barack Obama - often a target of Chavez's anti-American scorn - was circumspect, describing his passing as a "challenging time".
"As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the US remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights," Obama said.
Tens of thousands shattered supporters of Chavez paraded his coffin through the streets of the capital yesterday. Many wept as a hearse flanked by soldiers in red berets carried his coffin.
His body will lie in state at a military academy until a memorial service with foreign leaders tomorrow.