Thousands of cheering supporters greeted Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy as he returned from self-imposed exile to spearhead his party's election campaign against well-entrenched Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sam Rainsy was greeted by a large crowd of supporters from his Cambodia National Rescue Party after he landed Friday at the airport in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Rainsy, who was pardoned by King Sihamoni at Hun Sen's request a few days ago, lives in France, and had faced 11 years in jail after he was convicted in absentia for charges that he contends were politically motivated, including publishing a false map of the border with Vietnam.

Rainsy kissed the ground at the airport upon returning from France shortly after arriving 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 French-educated former banker holds joint French and Cambodian citizenship, and is travelling on his French passport as his Cambodian passport was revoked by the government after his convictions.

However, Rainsy has been removed from the electoral register and cannot contest polls unless parliament amends the law.

A Cambodian government official told AFP that Rainsy’s pardon was requested by Hun Sen "in the spirit of reconciliation", and Rainsy had "no right" to run as a candidate in the July 28 polls.

Hun Sen has held power for 28 years, and his party holds 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly.

The opposition leader has been in exile since 2009 to avoid serving 11 years in prison on charges many consider politically motivated.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies