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Chavez returns home to Venezuela after surgery

In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, March 4, 2012, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during a televised speech at an undisclosed location in Havana, Cuba, Saturday March 3, 2012.
AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office/Marcelo Garcia

(AP) CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned home Friday nearly three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba, saying he is praying for life.

After stepping off the plane, Chavez smiled and waved but also spoke soberly about the path ahead in his struggle against cancer.

"I lift up a prayer... in this battle for life," Chavez said in a televised speech on the tarmac. "We will live and we will win."

Chavez came home as many Venezuelans are wondering about his long-term prospects and about how his health will evolve ahead of the country's Oct. 7 presidential election. Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, such as the type of cancer, spurring speculation about how his cancer might affect the country's political landscape.

His close allies have assured Venezuelans that there is no Plan B and that Chavez is the only leader of his movement heading into the elections. Chavez was greeted by his vice president and Cabinet ministers, and soldiers standing at attention.

He stepped down the stairs at the plane hand-in-hand with a daughter and his mother.

The president has said a Feb. 26 surgery in Cuba removed a tumor from the same location in the pelvic region where another tumor was removed in June. He has said he is recovering smoothly.

Chavez has said his cancer was first diagnosed during a visit to Cuba last June. An initial surgery in June removed a tumor the size of a baseball.

He underwent four rounds of chemotherapy following initial surgeries last year, but announced in February that he was returning to Cuba for surgery to have a lesion removed.

Chavez has described the most recent tumor as measuring about 2 centimeters (0.8 inches) across. He has declined to identify the precise location of the cancer. He next plans to undergo radiation therapy, although it's unclear how soon that will begin.

Chavez announced his return on Twitter, saying he was at Havana's airport and "right now we're taking off."

Another message said Cuban President Raul Castro "came to see us off at the airport."

The 57-year-old leader is running for re-election this year, seeking another six-year term in the October national elections. His rival, 39-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles, has criticized Chavez's handling of his cancer, saying that if he were president his health would "be a matter of public knowledge."

Chavez flew to Cuba for his most recent surgery on Feb. 24, and his absence from the public spotlight since then has sparked speculation about his health. Chavez, who has been in office since 1999, has vowed to recover and win re-election.

He had last appeared on Venezuelan television Monday night in a video showing him walking with two of his daughters in a garden in Havana.

The president sought to keep up with government business while in Cuba. Last weekend, his Cabinet ministers were in Havana for a televised meeting where Chavez reviewed government projects ranging from subway expansion work to public housing complexes.