By Marco Chown Oved and Sophie Tetrel
ABOVE PHOTO: Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo and his wife Simone are seen in the custody of republican forces loyal to election winner Alassane Ouattara at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, April 11, 2011. Forces stormed the bunker where Gbagbo hung on to power Monday, arresting the man whose refusal to hand over the presidency to the election winner left hundreds dead and threatened to re-ignite a civil war in the world’s largest cocoa producer.
(AP Photo/Aristide Bodegla)
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast–After a week of heavy fighting, forces backing Ivory Coast’s internationally recognized leader on Monday arrested strongman Laurent Gbagbo who had refused to leave the presidency despite losing elections more than four months earlier.
The dispute over the presidency had pushed the world’s largest cocoa producer to the brink of a renewed civil war, with hundreds of civilians slain in postelection violence.
An eyewitness at the Golf Hotel where election winner Alassane Ouattara had been trying to run the presidency said he saw Gbagbo, his wife and son enter the hotel around midday Monday. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The long-awaited development came after French military forces in this former French colony deployed tanks Monday for the first time near a bunker at the presidential residence where Gbagbo had reportedly been holed up with his family.
Speaking on Ouattara’s private television station, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said Gbagbo gave up when troops loyal to Ouattara entered Gbagbo’s compound. The station broadcast images of a serene Gbagbo sitting on his bed. It was not immediately clear if the images were made immediately after his capture.
A senior adviser to Ouattara said it was Ivorian forces who arrested Gbagbo and that French forces were on the perimeter. Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, the French forces spokesman in Abidjan, said “there wasn’t one single French soldier at the residence of Laurent Gbagbo.”
Ouattara’s radio station confirmed Gbagbo’s arrest. Official word first came from the French Embassy in Abidjan.
“It’s a victory … considering all the evil that Laurent Gbagbo inflicted on Ivory Coast,” Ouattara’s ambassador to France, Ali Coulibaly, said on France-Info radio. He emphasizing that the man in power for a decade would be “treated with humanity.”
“We must not in any way make a royal gift to Laurent Gbagbo in making him a martyr,” Coulibaly said. “He must be alive and he must answer for the crimes against humanity that he committed.”
Gbagbo, who won 46 percent of the vote in November’s election, had held power for a decade , five years beyond his mandate. For years he had postponed holding a presidential election. When the country’s election commission and international observers declared he lost the election after it was finally held, he refused to step down.
The former history professor defied near-universal pressure to cede power to Ouattara. The two set up parallel administrations that vied for control of the West African economic powerhouse. Ouattara drew his support from the U.N. and world powers. Gbagbo maintained his hold over the country’s military and security forces who terrorized his opponents.
He wrapped himself in the country’s flag as he took the oath of office.
“No one has the right to call on foreign armies to invade his country,” Gbagbo, still taking a nationalistic stance, declared in a televised address on New Year’s Eve. “Our greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack.”
Other African nations considered military intervention to remove Gbagbo, but it never materialized and sanctions imposed on Gbagbo and his inner circle by the U.S. and European Union failed to dislodge him. Human rights groups accused his security forces of abducting and killing hundreds of political opponents as the deadlock dragged on.
While the United Nations passed resolutions allowing its peacekeepers to intervene to protect civilians, anti-Gbagbo neighborhoods in Abidjan continued to be pummeled with mortars. So many people were killed that the local morgue began stacking corpses on the floor because they had run out of space in the refrigerated vaults.
Some critics had accused Gbagbo of clinging to power to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has begun preliminary examination of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast, including accusations leveled against forces seeking to install Ouattara.
Ouattara attempted to assert his authority from the Golf Hotel, protected by U.N. peacekeepers, while the would-be president tried to financially strangle Gbagbo by imposing an embargo on cocoa exports. In a desperate move, Gbagbo seized control of foreign banks in Abidjan , prompting their flight and a liquidity crunch.
After months of political deadlock, forces backing Ouattara began a dramatic offensive in late March, taking the administrative capital and reaching the largest city and commercial capital, Abidjan, in just days. They met resistance in Abidjan, where Gbagbo and his family sought refuge in an underground bunker at the presidential residence.
On April 4, U.N. and French forces intervened to destroy Gbagbo’s arsenal of weapons used on civilians, firing rockets from helicopters and ultimately sending French tanks to the strongman’s home.