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Show of strength as Chavez returns from Cuban cancer treatment

President Hugo Chavez received a hero's welcome as he rallied thousands of supporters upon his return to Venezuela, vowing to beat cancer after undergoing surgery in Cuba.

Wearing the combat fatigues and red beret of his army days, Mr Chavez projected strength as he spoke from the balcony of the presidential palace on Monday, waving to the crowd below and raising a fist.

The President, whose three-week absence spurred a flurry of rumours about the seriousness of his health problems, delivered a signature performance. "We will also win this battle for life," he said. "We will live! We will be victorious!"

Nonetheless, signs of Mr Chavez's fragile health peeked through the stagecraft. At one point, the 56-year-old leader grimaced with apparent discomfort as he struggled to wave his country's yellow, blue and red flag above his head. The flag ended up awkwardly draping over his scalp, until Mr Chavez emerged with an embarrassed smile from the fabric.

His surprise return in the small hours of Monday morning was signature Chavez and sent a powerful message that he remains in control. While he was away in Cuba, uncertainty swirled in Venezuela, both about how sick he was and what would happen if cancer were to force him from power.