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Seeking clues to Bolivar's death, Venezuela exhumes bones of independence hero's sisters

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan authorities exhumed the remains of Simon Bolivar's sisters Monday, seeking genetic clues to help them investigate President Hugo Chavez's theory that the South American independence hero may have been murdered.

Scientists and forensic experts extracted DNA samples from the bones of Juana and Maria Antonia Bolivar — the only siblings of the man known in Venezuela as "El Libertador" — after authorities opened their tombs inside a cathedral in downtown Caracas, Vice President Elias Jaua said.

"The scientists are carrying out the tests at this very moment to begin the study and later make the comparison with the samples from El Libertador," Jaua said.

Chavez ordered the exhumation of Bolivar's bones last month in hopes of using modern forensics to confirm his identity and investigate a theory that his idol was felled by a murder conspiracy. The president has gone so far as to raise concerns that the skeleton inside the National Pantheon may not be the remains of the 19th century independence icon.

"We've always wanted to demonstrate that these are the real remains," Jaua said.

Historians have generally concluded Bolivar died of tuberculosis, and some of the socialist leader's critics argue he shouldn't be messing with the bones of Venezuela's acclaimed founding father. Some scoff at Chavez's doubts regarding the authenticity of the remains in the pantheon.

Chavez — a former soldier, like his idol — is obsessed with Bolivar.

A portrait of the 19th century independence leader often serves as a backdrop during televised speeches in which Chavez reads Bolivar's writings. And the president's political movement — the Bolivarian Revolution — takes its name from Bolivar.

Shortly after taking office in 1999, Chavez pressured a popularly elected assembly packed with his allies to change the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.