Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo was captured and placed under the control of his presidential rival on Monday after French troops closed in on the besieged compound where he had been holed up for the past week.
A column of more than 30 French armoured vehicles moved in on Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan after French and United Nations helicopter gunships attacked the compound overnight to end a drawn-out political standoff that had reignited a civil war.
Witnesses said Ouattara’s forces, who had failed to dislodge Gbagbo after a fierce attack on his bunker last week, joined French ground troops advancing on the compound.
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 1 000 lives and uprooted a million people.
“Yes, he has been arrested,” Affoussy Bamba, a spokesperson for Ouattara, told Reuters.
Gbagbo’s spokesperson, Ahoua Don Mello Gbagbo, had come out of his bunker and surrendered to the French without offering resistance.
The former colonial power, however, said the arrest was carried out by Ouattara’s forces backed by the UN and the French military.
“Just after 3 o’clock, the ex-president Laurent Gbagbo handed himself over to the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire. At no moment did French forces enter either the garden or the residence of Gbagbo,” French armed forces spokesperson Thierry Burkhard said.
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 he has claimed for the last four months after the disputed election, he will still have to confront longstanding ethnic divisions, years of economic stagnation and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Gbagbo’s arrest may not be enough to draw a line under the conflict. “Ouattara has to play this very carefully, to manage tensions at home and placate the domestic constituents of Gbagbo and so resolve not just the electoral dispute but also in effect a 10-year-long civil war,” said Mark Schroeder, an analyst with political risk consultancy Stratfor.
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 coloured 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, looking dishevelled.
Gbagbo later made a brief appearance on the television station, calling for an end to fighting.
UN 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.
France, which has more than 1 600 troops in its former colony, took a lead role in efforts to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power, infuriating his supporters who accuse Paris of neo-colonialism.
Celebrations erupted as news of the arrest spread in the commercial capital, where people have been trapped by fighting for 10 days, and food and water are running low.
“Let’s hope the country can find peace and stability. I’m very happy,” said Jean Desire Aitcheou in the Banco neighbourhood.
“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, while the French headed towards downtown Abidjan.
Meanwhile, hundreds of pro-Ouattara troops massed at a base camp just north of Abidjan, where a bus arrived, filled with new Kalashnikov rifles still in their transparent blue wrappers.
Some Gbagbo supporters around Cocody district, where his residence is located, tried to halt the French armoured vehicles, kneeling in front of them praying, but were quickly dispersed when another round of firing began.
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.
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.
Côte d’Ivoire’s $2.3-billion bond rallied more than half a point on Monday, reversing earlier three-point losses, after Gbagbo was arrested.