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Thousands greet returning Rainsy

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Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy, standing atop a pickup truck, waves to throngs of supporters outside Phnom Penh International Airport on Saturday. Griff Tapper

Thousands greet returning Rainsy

In the midst of a spiraling political crisis, opposition leader Sam Rainsy made a dramatic return to Cambodia on Saturday, calling for the immediate release of jailed CNRP lawmakers-elect in front of a crowd of thousands at the airport.

With seven of their leaders now sitting in Prey Sar prison, as many as 20,000 Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters turned out to accompany Rainsy on his journey from Pochentong into the capital.

The day marked one year since Rainsy was greeted by an estimated 100,000 as he returned from almost four years of self-imposed exile shortly before last year's election.

Initially planning to march to Wat Phnom, where scores of riot police were stationed at nearby Freedom Park, the party changed tack at the last minute, instead going to its Meanchey district headquarters.

There, Rainsy promised broad talks aimed at ending the nearly yearlong political stalemate.

“I have come back to our country to solve the problem of the political deadlock. I am asking to have proper solution and we should start on Monday,” Rainsy told supporters.

Without calling him out by name, Rainsy hinted that talks should include Prime Minister Hun Sen, saying that only “one person” had the real power necessary to make a deal.

“There are only two solutions: first, is peaceful negotiations; second, is to fight. But we don't want to fight, we don't want our Khmer people's blood drained."

Seven lawmakers-elect, including senior party leaders Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, and a party activist face charges ranging from insurrection to incitement to violence related to a protest at Freedom Park on Tuesday

During the protest, several members of the notorious Daun Penh district security guards were severely beaten when CNRP supporters fought back against their advances.

Rights groups have decried the charges as baseless and called for the immediate release of the eight.

“Eyewitness accounts and video evidence from July 15 demonstrate that there is absolutely no evidence against the eight that could justify the charges,” Ath Sam Ath, technical coordinator for Licadho, said in a joint statement released by 24 local rights groups on Thursday.

CNRP deputy chief Kem Sokha is scheduled to appear at court for questioning on Friday.

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