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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 22:46 GMT
Venezuela funding brings Rio win
A Simon Bolivar float in the Vila Isabel samba school parade
An effigy of Simon Bolivar stood atop one of the group's floats
The annual parade competition at Brazil's famous Rio de Janeiro carnival has been won by a samba group largely funded by the Venezuelan government.

The Vila Isabel group, which was declared the winner after a dance-off, had Latin American unity as its theme.

Vila Isabel's president, Wilson Moises Alves, thanked Venezuela's national oil company, PDVSA, for its funding.

PDVSA will not say how much money was involved, but reports estimate its donation at more than $500,000.

Chavez no-show

It is Vila Isabel's second carnival victory, following on from a win in 1988.

The Vila Isabel procession featured floats showcasing the brotherhood of Latin Americans, including a huge effigy of Simon Bolivar and a 1960s anthem dedicated to the left, called I'm Crazy About You, America.

Two men wearing headdresses made of tropical fruits

Local media said the samba school had invited Mr Chavez to the street party, but he had declined.

Images of Saddam Hussein and former Argentine military ruler Jorge Rafael Videla were also controversially on show at the samba parade.

The samba competition, which takes place in front of a panel of 40 judges and 70,000 spectators in the city's Sambadrome is the crescendo to four days of partying across the city and the country.

The dozens of samba groups battling it out are judged not just on their dancing, but their music, staging and even the response of the crowd.

Art theft

Elsewhere, 1.5 million people took to the streets for a parade in the north-eastern city of Recife.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, was among the revellers in Salvador, a city known for its vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture.

Rio de Janeiro played host to nearly 700,000 tourists, bringing in close to $500m (285m), according to the local authorities.

The festivities were marred by the theft from a museum of paintings by Picasso, Dali, Monet and Matisse thought to be worth around $50m (28m).

The armed thieves used a carnival street parade as cover for their getaway.

Brazilian police have alerted Interpol and produced photo-fit pictures of two suspects.

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