Chavez underwent four rounds of chemotherapy following initial surgeries last year [Reuters]

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned home nearly three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.

Chavez smiled and waved as he stepped off the plane at Caracas' Maiquetia international airport on Friday and walked down the stairs, hand-in-hand with a daughter and his mother. Soldiers stood at attention on the tarmac.

In a sign that the socialist leader was looking healthy enough to appear in public, officials called press photographers and cameramen to the airport to witness Chavez's arrival.

Chavez's supporters hope that his return will calm anxiety about his health and quell whispers of a brewing succession struggle behind the scenes.

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 as he prepares for an October 7 presidential election that has turned into the biggest political fight of his 13-year rule.

The 57-year-old, who has led the country since 1998, is seeking another six-year term, but has been criticised by his man rival, Henrique Capriles, a state governor, who has said if he was president his health would be a matter of public record.

More treatment

Chavez said the operation last month 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 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 is unclear how soon that will begin.

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

Source: Agencies