Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned home Friday to cheering crowds of supporters, just days after a royal pardon ended a long-standing feud with his rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen. "I'm very happy!" Sam Rainsy shouted as he walked off the plane at Phnom Penh International Airport , where more than 2,000 supporters crowded the gates waving Cambodian and opposition party flags. "I feel very excited to have come back to Cambodia ."
Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister and leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, went into self-imposed exile in France in February 2005 after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and facing defamation allegations launched by Hun Sen.
On his arrival in Phnom Penh , Sam Rainsy told reporters he hoped his return would mark a new chapter for Cambodian politics and help to rebuild the country's fragile democracy. He said he hoped to hold talks with Hun Sen and was committed to putting aside past differences.
"Democracy requires all leaders to talk to each other to find a solution for the nation, because Cambodia belongs to all of us," he said. "I will do whatever it takes for the country to progress." As he left the airport, Sam Rainsy stood on the back of a pickup truck flanked by bodyguards and waved to the throngs of supporters, who massed on the road and brought traffic to a standstill.
"I'm so happy to be here to receive my leader today," said Ung Sam Ang, a 47-year-old opposition supporter in the crowd.
The opposition leader and the prime minister have been political foes for years. Sam Rainsy is known for his sharp-tongued criticism of Hun Sen and has often accused his government of corruption and human rights abuses. Sam Rainsy's return could have a major effect on Cambodian politics because much of the appeal of the opposition leader and his party, the sole opposition party in the National Assembly, lies in their vocal criticisms of Hun Sen.
Khieu Kanharith, chief government spokesman, said the government welcomed Sam Rainsy's return and was considering whether to accept his request for a meeting with Hun Sen.
"We want to have a dialogue with all Cambodian political parties," he said. Hun Sen's administration has faced mounting criticism over a crackdown on his critics, which the United States has said calls into question the government's commitment to democracy.
In December, a court sentenced Sam Rainsy in absentia to 18 months in prison on charges of criminal defamation for accusing Hun Sen of being behind a deadly grenade attack on a peaceful anti-government demonstration in 1997.
The court also found Sam Rainsy guilty of defaming Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the National Assembly president, by accusing him of taking bribes to have his royalist Funcinpec party join Hun Sen's government. In a surprise move last week, Sam Rainsy recanted his accusation against Hun Sen and the prime minister accepted, in effect ending a long-running personal and political feud. Hun Sen then asked King Norodom Sihamoni to grant the opposition leader a royal amnesty, which the king issued on Sunday, reports the AP.
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