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A meeting with Castro – then home for Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return from Cuba yesterday, stepping off a plane before dawn amid speculation about his fitness to continue in office after surgery to remove a cancerous tumour.

After meetings in Havana over the weekend with his political ally Fidel Castro – who hailed his friend's recovery as "impressive" – a thinner but energetic-looking Mr Chavez strode across the tarmac and boarded a plane at Havana airport. In a video, aired by state television, he said goodbye to Fidel Castro's brother, Cuban President Raul Castro, and then saluted, raised a fist, waved and blew a kiss.

"It's the beginning of my return!" he declared in Venezuela, shortly after arriving at about 2am. He wore a tracksuit as he stepped off the plane in the darkness and hugged his vice-president Elias Jaua and his elder brother Adan.

The president's illness and three-week stay in Cuba had observers speculating he could be gone for months, and some questioned whether he could ever return to office. Mr Chavez's sudden arrival appeared to put that speculation to rest.

"I'm fine. I'm happy," said the President, who pumped his fist as he held up a paper showing a Venezuelan football team's victory.