Ivory Coast’s elected president used his troops and French tanks and air power to oust strongman Laurent Gbagbo, ending their four-month standoff on Monday by pulling him from his burning residence.
Images of Gbagbo being led into a room in a white undershirt were broadcast on television as proof of his capture even as he refused to sign a statement formally ceding power after losing November’s election.
Residents of the commercial capital of Abidjan refrained from celebrating in public, still fearful of the hundreds of armed fighters that continued to prowl the streets, refusing to believe their leader had been arrested. Sporadic gunfire echoed across the city Monday night.
More than a million civilians fled their homes and untold numbers were killed over the course of the power struggle that threatened to re-ignite a civil war in the world’s largest cocoa producer. Gbagbo could be forced to answer for his soldiers’ crimes, but an international trial threatens to stoke the divisions that President Alassane Ouattara will now have to heal.
Gbagbo’s dramatic arrest came after days of heavy fighting during which French and U.N. helicopters fired rockets at arms depots around the city and targets within the presidential compound. Ouattara’s final push began just after French airstrikes ceased at around 3 a.m. Monday. A simultaneous French armored advance secured large parts of the city and pro-Ouattara troops entered the presidential compound just after midday.
“We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker,” Issard Soumahro, a pro-Ouattara fighter at the scene, told The Associated Press.
He added that Gbagbo was tired and had been slapped by a soldier, but was not otherwise hurt.
Witnesses at the nearby Golf Hotel said Gbagbo was brought in with his wife, son and about 50 members of his entourage.
“The nightmare is over for the people of Ivory Coast,” Ivory Coast’s U.N. ambassador said.
Youssoufou Bamba, who was appointed U.N. ambassador by Ouattara, said Gbagbo will be delivered to justice.
But it will be very difficult for Ivory Coast to mount a domestic court to try Gbagbo, said Richard Downie, an Africa expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that it would “probably be a lightning rod for more unrest.”
“(Ouattara) didn’t want to come to power this way, through the barrel of a gun,” Downie said. “He was elected fairly and freely. But this is the situation he was dealt. It’s going to be incredibly difficult for him to bring the country together.”
In western Ivory Coast, rebels fired into the air in jubilation in Duekoue, causing a panic among refugees who fled in all directions or dropped to the ground in terror. In villages going east from Duekoue people danced in the streets, waving tree branches. In one village, young men paraded with the orange, white and green Ivorian flag.
“It’s a victory ... considering all the evil that Laurent Gbagbo inflicted on Ivory Coast,” Ouattara’s ambassador to France, Ali Coulibaly, told France-Info radio. He emphasized 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.”
Some critics had accused Gbagbo of clinging to power in part to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war. The country was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. The long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation but instead unleashed months of violence.