ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo was arrested by opposition forces on Monday after French troops closed in on the compound where the self-proclaimed president had been holed up in a bunker for the past week.
A column of more than 30 French armored vehicles moved in on Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan after helicopter gunships attacked the compound overnight to end a drawn-out political standoff that had descended into civil war.
Gbagbo refused to step down when Alassane Ouattara won November’s presidential election, according to results certified by the United Nations, reigniting violence that has claimed more than a thousand lives and uprooted a million people.
“Yes, he has been arrested,” Affoussy Bamba, a spokeswoman for Ouattara, told Reuters. Gbagbo’s spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, said: “President Laurent Gbagbo came out of his bunker and surrendered to the French without offering resistance.”
Gbagbo’s arrest marked the end of his 10 years in power in the world’s leading cocoa-growing nation, but while Ouattara will assume the presidency has claimed for the last four months after a disputed election, he will still have to confront longstanding ethnic divisions, years of economic stagnation and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
French officials said Gbagbo had been arrested by Ouattara’s forces backed by the United Nations and the French military. They said French forces had not carried out the arrest.
“Just after 3 o’clock, the ex-president Laurent Gbagbo handed himself over to the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast. At no moment did French forces enter either the garden or the residence of Gbagbo,” French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
However, his arrest seems unlikely to draw a line under the conflict.
“This is just the start of the crisis. The role of French forces undermines Ouattara’s credibility,” said Kwesi Aning, head of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Center in Accra.
“There may be a lull for a couple of months but certainly there will be attacks to try to reverse this defeat.”
Gbagbo was taken to the Hotel Golf in Abidjan, where his rival has his headquarters.
Ouattara’s TCI television station showed Gbagbo in a room at the Golf, with Ouattara’s forces standing near him. Wearing a white vest, he looked in good health but submissive. He was given a towel and a clean brightly colored green shirt, which he put on in front of the camera.
Gbagbo’s wife Simone, said by many Ivorians to possess the powers of witchcraft, was with him at the hotel.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the head of Gbagbo’s forces had called to say that he was ready to lay down his weapons.
“The nightmare has ended,” Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said, while Ouattara’s ambassador to the United Nations said Gbagbo would be “brought to justice.”
Shortly after the news broke of Gbagbo’s arrest, Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said the French president had just had a long telephone conversation with Ouattara.
In Abidjan’s Banco neighbourhood, about 50 cheering youths celebrated the news of Gbagbo’s arrest.
“Let’s hope the country can find peace and stability. I’m very happy,” said Jean Desire Aitcheou.
“A big thank you to France for having liberated us,” said Fidi Ouattara (no relation to the presidential claimant).
Earlier on Monday, residents reported heavy fighting between forces loyal to Ouattara and those backing Gbagbo around Abidjan’s Cocody and Plateau districts.
Hundreds of fresh pro-Ouattara troops massed at a base camp just north of Abidjan, where a small bus arrived, filled with new Kalashnikov rifles still in their transparent blue wrappers.
The French armored vehicles left their base in the south and headed toward downtown Abidjan early on Monday.
“Armed and ready for combat,” the commanding officer ordered. The men cocked their weapons ready to fire as the vehicles rolled out of the base.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast with more than 1,600 troops in the country, took a lead role in efforts to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power, infuriating his supporters who accuse Paris of neo-colonialism.
Some Gbagbo supporters around Cocody district, where his residence is located, tried to halt the French armored vehicles, kneeling in front of them praying, but were quickly dispersed when another round of firing began.
A resident said he saw 15 pro-Gbagbo soldiers surrender their weapons and battle fatigues to the French soldiers. A French army source later said more than 100 members of the pro-Gbagbo army had surrendered their weapons.
The arrest of Gbagbo and the lifting of European Union sanctions on the two main ports in the world’s top cocoa-producing nation mean cocoa exports may be possible by next week.
Cocoa prices, which had earlier risen sharply on reports of fighting, fell back when Gbagbo’s arrest was announced.
Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion bond rallied more than half a point on Monday, reversing earlier 3-point losses, after Gbagbo was arrested.
Helicopter attacks a week ago on Gbagbo’s heavy weapons by the United Nations and France appeared to bring Gbagbo’s forces to the point of surrender, but they used a lull in fighting to regroup before taking more ground in Abidjan.
Ouattara’s forces swept from the north to coastal Abidjan almost unopposed more than a week ago in a drive to install their leader as president.
Gbagbo’s defeat had appeared imminent last week and talks took place between the two sides. But Gbagbo’s soldiers dug in, holding on to swathes of the city and frustrating hopes of a swift end to the conflict.
Even now, Ouattara’s ability to unify the West African country may be undermined by reports of atrocities against civilians since his forces charged into Abidjan. Ouattara’s camp has denied involvement.
Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that forces loyal to Ouattara had killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 women and girls perceived as belonging to Gbagbo’s camp and burned at least 10 villages in western Ivory Coast.
Those loyal Gbagbo, in turn, killed more than 100 alleged supporters of Ouattara in March.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Vicky Buffery in Paris and Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Alison Williams)