|Chavez warned that his opponents will try to destabilise his government while he undergoes surgery [Reuters]
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will fly to Cuba for an unknown period to undergo new cancer surgery, prompting new speculation over the health of the socialist leader months before a presidential election.
Chavez, 57, was due to leave Caracas on Friday prior to surgery early next week, but told supporters he would be around for a long time to come.
"Once more into battle!" he said, using typically militaristic language in a lengthy cabinet meeting broadcast live by state television on Thursday.
``I will live! I will live!'' he added, pounding a wooden conference table and flanked by ministers.
After two operations in Cuba last year, Chavez said earlier this week that he would fly back for more surgery to remove a lesion in the same pelvic area where a baseball-sized tumour was found during the original treatment.
He said he would be operated on by the same doctors who performed his surgey last year.
Chavez had previously declared himself cured, and his latest health battle could throw into doubt his campaign for re-election on October 7.
Questions are also being asked about his capacity to rule Venezuela for another six-year term should he win.
Chavez appeared in good spirits during Thursday's meeting, with footage showing him singing, laughing and bantering with ministers.
At one point, a boy appeared via a video feed from the western city of Maracaibo and recited a couplet about the president's illness and how he would overcome it.
Chavez, who is running for re-election this year, was in full campaign mode and spoke nearly uninterrupted for just over four hours, railing against the "unpatriotic bourgeoisie" and saying there would be no more housing programmes for the poor if his opponents took the presidency.
"A capitalist state is never going to subsidise anything," he said, punctuating his words with animated gestures.
"Whatever happens," he promised, "we are going to win by a knockout."
Chavez warned that his opponents would try to destabilise his government while he underwent surgery. The opposition, he alleged, planned to spread rumours of discontent and division within the country's military and stir intrigue about his health.
The nation's congress earlier unanimously approved permission for Chavez to leave - a formality required by the constitution.
Under Venezuela's constitution, the vice president may take the president's place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, which the national assembly may extend for 90 days more.
But pro-Chavez legislators scoffed at opposition suggestions that Chavez might need the vice president to temporarily assume office.
Elias Jaua, the vice president, said Chavez was fully capable of continuing his duties.
Cancer specialists say Chavez's absence could last weeks if he has to stay in Cuba for radiation treatment.
Chavez has denied rumours the cancer had spread aggressively, but also said his doctors did not know if the new two-centimetre lesion they found over the weekend was malignant.