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Thousands rally to welcome Chavez back to Venezuela after cancer surgery in Cuba
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' President Hugo Chavez led an energetic homecoming celebration on Saturday, rallying thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace after three weeks in Cuba for cancer surgery.
Chavez turned the event into a campaign rally, vowing to win re-election in the Oct. 7 presidential vote and demanding unity from his followers. Returning to the combativeness that has characterized much of his 13-year presidency, Chavez insulted his opponents and denounced a state governor who recently broke ranks with his party as a "traitor to the revolution."
The president referred to his health only briefly, saying he will start radiation therapy treatment in the coming days "in order to attack any new threat."
"This cancer can't beat Chavez either!" he shouted to the crowd during the hourlong speech.
He gesticulated emphatically as he warned that his opponents cannot be trusted.
"We have to work very hard, be very united, very alert, very conscious of the risks that always exist when you're going to confront people who always fight dirty, and behind them there's also a lot of power ' the Yankee (U.S.) empire, the CIA," Chavez said. "Big transnational companies are behind the campaign of the Venezuelan right. ... We have to be watchful, because it's not just any battle. No, the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution is at stake."
Supporters below chanted: "The people are with you!"
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!" Chavez told the crowd, flanked by his aides. He reiterated that his latest cancer surgery in Cuba was successful, and said he feels a "commitment to you all to live."
His supporters cheered, beat drums and waved flags, chanting "Take care of yourself!" Some in the crowd wore T-shirts with Chavez's face emblazoned on them. Others said they're praying for the president's health.
"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 Morgado said he thinks Chavez is looking strong and "he's also capable of combatting death ... and beating death" after leading a socialist government for 13 years.
Chavez came down firmly on Saturday against Monagas state Gov. Jose Gregorio Briceno, who was suspended from Chavez's party on Wednesday after making critical remarks about the president of the National Assembly.
"He's a counterrevolutionary," Chavez said. "I knew that was going to happen."
The Venezuelan leader arrived home on Friday night looking haggard but expressing optimism that he will overcome cancer.
Chavez 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. Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, such as the type of cancer, spurring speculation.
The president has said his Feb. 26 surgery in Cuba removed a tumor from the same location in the pelvic region where another tumor was removed in June.
After he was diagnosed with cancer, Chavez underwent an initial surgery in June that removed a tumor the size of a baseball.
He then had four rounds of chemotherapy and said tests showed no signs of any cancerous cells. But last month, he announced 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). He has declined to identify the precise location where the tumors appeared.
Chavez said he planned to rest on Sunday. "I'm taking care of myself," he said.
"That's another tale they haul around on the opposition side, that I'm dying, that I'm not going to endure the campaign," Chavez said. He dismissed speculation about possible successors.
"They have a whole soap opera," Chavez said, referring to the opposition. "We're going to show them what revolutionary unity is!"
The 57-year-old leader has been in office since 1999 leading his socialist-oriented Bolivarian Revolution movement, named after 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar. Chavez is seeking another six-year term in the October presidential vote.
His rival, 39-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles, has criticized Chavez's secretive handling of his cancer, saying that if he were president, his health would "be a matter of public knowledge."
"We welcome home the government's candidate," Capriles said while making door-to-door pre-campaign visits in Aragua state. "I wish him good health. He shouldn't forget that in this contest ahead, at least from our part, what we're doing is going house-to-house. It's not insulting anybody."
Chavez called the opposition "the bourgeoisie" and the "stateless and irrational right." He referred to Capriles as the candidate of "the Yankees."
"The beating we're going to give the Venezuelan right, the beating we're going to give them, that beating is going to be memorable," Chavez said.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap