Spain's leading newspaper El Pais said Thursday it fell for a scam involving a fake Cuban nurse when it published a phony photograph supposedly showing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in his hospital bed.
But the photo has infuriated the authorities in Caracas, who have announced they will be suing the paper.
The front-page photograph of a man purported to be Chavez lying in a Cuban hospital with tubes emerging from his mouth sparked a furious reaction from Venezuela.
El Pais, Spain's best selling newspaper and one of the most influential in the Spanish-speaking world, apologised for the error, took down the image from its internet site within about 30 minutes of its posting, and halted deliveries of newspapers carrying the story.
In an article headlined "The photo that El Pais should never have published", the centre-left paper said it received the image from the Gtres Online news agency, which claimed it was of the Venezuelan leader.
"On being asked for information about the origin of the photo and its circumstances, the agency indicated that it came from a Cuban nurse through her sister, who was resident in Spain," El Pais said in its online edition late Thursday.
The nurse's supposed sister had provided the image to Gtres Online news agency, it said.
Gtres Online explained to El Pais that the photograph had been taken seven days earlier and the nurse had since left the medical team taking care of Chavez, asking that these details not be published.
"The agency has recognised that it was fooled by the person who provided the material and that it will take legal action," El Pais said.
The newspaper said the publication of an image of an intubated patient had been debated in depth by the paper's editors, who decided that it was of news interest because of the polemic over the status of Chavez' health and its political ramifications.
Verification of the photograph through El Pais' correspondent in Havana, Yoani Sanchez, was not possible because she was under close surveillance by the Cuban authorities and the request could have put her at risk, the paper said.
The caption on the photograph had stated that El Pais was unable to verify the circumstances, place and date of the photograph.
Caracas said it would take legal action against the newspaper. A statement from Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas dismissed the newspaper's apology as inadequate.
Denouncing the photo on his official Twitter account earlier, Villegas said: "It is as grotesque as it is false."
The photograph was actually taken from a video of an operation posted on YouTube, he said, providing the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB4bIH0GsYU.
The video has an upload date of August 6, 2008, and is described as showing the intubation of a patient with acromegaly, an excess of growth hormone. The video includes the same image as appeared in El Pais.
Chavez, who has been convalescing in Cuba since his fourth round of cancer surgery, has not been seen in public since December 10 and official information about his health has been sketchy.
The Venezuelan leader was too sick to attend his scheduled inauguration for a new term on January 10, but in recent days officials have said he has been making encouraging progress.