Pakistan's supreme court has ruled exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can return to Pakistan and resume his political career. The ruling is the latest in a series of setbacks for Pakistan's embattled President Pervez Musharraf who strongly opposed Sharif's return. From Islamabad VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.

Hundreds of jubilant pro-Nawaz Sharif activists thronged the Supreme Court building Thursday to cheer the ruling.

In a brief statement the court said Sharif and his family have "an inalienable right" to return to Pakistan and warned authorities not to obstruct their re-entry.

Sharif lawyer Fakhar Ud Din Ibrahim Jee described the ruling as a landmark case for Pakistan. He said that above all else the public will now have full confidence in the rule of law.

After nearly seven years in exile the former prime minister is expected to return to Pakistan shortly.

Sharif is now considered one of President Musharraf's main political opponents ahead of national elections expected later this year.

The former prime minister leads one Pakistan's largest opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N.

He was Prime Minister until 1999 when then General Musharraf, who was then the head of the army, ousted Sharif in a military coup.

Sharif was convicted of a series of criminal misdeeds in 2000 but the government allowed him to leave prison in exchange for a ten-year exile.

The court's decision ending that exile is the latest blow to Mr. Musharraf's military backed government.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected later this year and the president's public support is at an all time low.

Mr. Sharif and another exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are both expected to return to Pakistan and threaten the president's once absolute hold on power.

The ruling itself was issued by chief justice Iftakhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom the president unsuccessfully tried to replace earlier this year, reportedly over concerns the outspoken judge was too independent.

Attention now turns to Ms. Bhutto who has discussed a possible political alliance with Mr. Musharraf if he agrees to end his dual role as political and military chief.

Political analyst Shafqat Mahmood says that deal or no deal, there is little reason to believe Thursday's ruling will change the president's plans to seek another five years term in office.

"He is determined to hang on. He has this messiah complex which means he feels that without him the country will be immeasurably damaged," he said.

The United States continues to back Mr. Musharraf, who has been a key ally in the U.S. led war against terror.

But U.S. officials have also ratcheted up the pressure on the president to crack down on pro-Taleban and al Qaida militants operating inside Pakistan.

The White House has also strongly backed the need for completely free and fair elections later this year.