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Thousands of jubilant supporters welcomed Cambodia's newly pardoned opposition leader home from exile Friday as his party fights to end Prime Minister Hun Sen's nearly three decades in power.
Crowds gathered outside Phnom Penh's airport and lined the road to the city centre to welcome Sam Rainsy, waving flags and shouting "change, change!"
The French-educated former banker fled in 2009 to avoid charges he contends were politically motivated.
Rainsy kissed the ground at the airport upon returning from France shortly after 9:00 am (0200 GMT) on a flight via Bangkok.
"I'm very happy. I came back to rescue the nation with you all," he told supporters before heading for Democracy Park where he was due to speak.
The 64-year-old had faced 11 years in jail but was pardoned by King Sihamoni last week at Hun Sen's request, clearing the way for his return ahead of elections on July 28.
"I'm very happy and excited to see the leader of democracy returning to the country," said Sok Kan, 64, who was among those waiting to greet him.
"He is far different from the current leader. He sacrifices everything for the nation," Kuch Narith, 26, told AFP.
US lawmakers have called for the United States to cut off aid to Cambodia unless this month's polls are free and fair.
Hun Sen is one of Southeast Asia's longest-serving leaders. His Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won the last two polls by a landslide amid allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
In May Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected from the murderous 1970s regime and became premier in 1985, said he would try to stay in power for another decade.
Rainsy told AFP before his return that the pardon was "a small victory for democracy" but also warned that "much more remains to be done".
The opposition leader, who is seen as the main challenger to strongman Hun Sen, has been removed from the electoral register and as a result is unable to run as a candidate this month unless parliament amends the law.
But he plans to hit the campaign trail soon to try to boost support for his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
"His presence will galvanise activists and voters," said CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann.
Sovann said the CNRP would discuss possible ways to register Rainsy as a candidate after his return.
The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, on Monday urged Cambodia to let Rainsy play a "full part" in politics.
Rainsy left his homeland and moved to Paris aged 16 after the disappearance of his father, which historians blame on agents contracted to then-dictator Lon Nol.
After earning an MBA from France's INSEAD Business School, he worked for various banks in Paris before setting up his own accountancy firm.
He returned to Cambodia in 1992 and briefly held the post of finance minister.
He fled in 2005 after Hun Sen pressed defamation charges against him but received a royal pardon the following year and returned to the kingdom.
He left Cambodia once again in 2009 and was convicted in his absence for charges including inciting racial discrimination and spreading disinformation.
Experts say Rainsy is popular among many workers thanks to his background as a labour activist dating back to the mid-1990s.
Yet while voters -- especially those from poor, rural areas -- may admire Rainsy, they find it hard to identify with him given his privileged background, said independent political analyst Chea Vannath.
Unlike Hun Sen, Rainsy neither experienced the Khmer Rouge's reign nor helped to liberate the country from the brutal regime, she said.
"Rainsy had better opportunities to pursue his education while Hun Sen stopped studying to join the liberation (anti-Khmer Rouge) movement in the 1970s," she added.
Hun Sen had previously vowed to hold office until he reached 90. He turns 61 in August but officially lists his age as 62 which he says is the result of a typing error.