JOHANNESBURG – Ivory Coast’s longtime leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to relinquish power despite his defeat in presidential elections in November and a bloody battle with opposition forces, was seized from his compound in Abidjan on Monday and placed in the custody of U.N. peacekeeping forces, officials said.
The former president was shown on television being led into a room wearing an unbuttoned shirt and sleeveless white undershirt. Looking tired and wary, Gbagbo wiped his face with a towel before changing into a green and yellow shirt.
The capture came after Ivory Coast’s former colonial power, France, acting at the request of the United Nations, unleashed heavy overnight helicopter attacks at the presidential residence bunker where Gbagbo was trapped. French tanks closed in early Monday but the arrest was made by forces loyal to Gbagbo rival Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the presidential election.
Gbagbo, his wife, Simone, and son, Michel, were taken to the Golf Hotel, Ouattara’s political headquarters.
Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, said that Gbagbo, who ruled the country for a decade, had credibly been implicated in crimes against humanity and should be held accountable.
Gbagbo, a Sorbonne-educated history professor, will stand trial, according to Youssoufou Bamba, the Ivory Coast’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York.
The fighting near the presidential residence stopped at about lunchtime, according to witnesses. Spontaneous celebrations broke out in some parts of Ivory Coast, particularly in Ouattara strongholds, like the northern city of Bouake.
Ivory Coast was thrown into crisis after elections last November. The balloting was observed and certified by the United Nations, which declared Ouattara, a U.S.-educated economist, the winner with 64 percent of the vote, to Gbagbo’s 46 percent. However, Gbagbo refused to cede power.
In the standoff that followed, the two rivals both had themselves sworn into office and each appointed his own government.
Talks, mediated by the African Union, dragged on for months with no resolution. Gbagbo repeatedly rejected U.N. and A.U. calls to stand down and rebuffed Ouattara’s offer of a deal offering peaceful exile.
Thousands of people were killed in the fighting and about 1 million people fled their homes, according to humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.
Two weeks ago, Ouattara’s forces launched attacks across the nation and rapidly advanced to Abidjan, the nation’s commercial capital and largest city, where they met fierce resistance from Gbagbo loyalists.
As Gbagbo fighters attacked civilians, diplomats, U.N. peacekeepers and the U.N. mission, and invaded hotels abducting people, the U.N. launched its initial military action to destroy Gbagbo’s armed personnel carriers and heavy weapons.
At the time of his capture, many of Gbagbo’s top military officials and rank-and-file soldiers had deserted or changed sides, leaving only die-hard loyalists and militias to support him.