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Chavez greets home crowd after op

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has held an energetic homecoming celebration, rallying thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace after nearly three weeks in Cuba for cancer surgery.

The 57-year-old turned the event into a campaign rally, vowing to win re-election in the October 7 presidential vote and demanding unity from his followers, denouncing a state governor who recently broke ranks with his party as a "traitor to the revolution".

"This battle is hard and will be hard, but we'll win it," said Mr Chavez, who gesticulated energetically as he spoke or listened to expressions of loyalty while standing for more than an hour. The crowd below chanted: "The people are with you!"

Mr Chavez waved, blew kisses and raised a fist when he appeared on the balcony, then took the microphone and sang along with a Venezuelan folk song while a band played.

"Long live Venezuela!" he told the crowd, flanked by his aides.

He reiterated that his latest cancer surgery in Cuba had been successful, and said he feels a "commitment to you all to live".

His supporters cheered, beat drums and waved flags. Some in the crowd wore T-shirts with Mr Chavez's face emblazoned on them. Others said they were praying for the president's health. Many of Mr Chavez's supporters said they fully expect him to overcome his illness and win re-election.

"We know the world is worried about President Chavez," said Carlos Morgado, a 59-year-old artist who has painted murals of the president. But he added that he thinks the leader is looking strong and "he's also capable of combating death... and beating death" after leading a socialist government for 13 years.

Mr Chavez came down firmly on Saturday against Monagas state governor Jose Gregorio Briceno, who was suspended from the president's party on Wednesday after making critical remarks about the head of the National Assembly. "He's a counter-revolutionary," Mr Chavez said. "I knew that was going to happen."

The Venezuelan leader arrived home last night looking haggard but expressing optimism that he will overcome cancer. He spent three weeks in Cuba, leaving many Venezuelans wondering about his long-term prospects and about how his health will evolve ahead of the election.

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