ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – 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.
Gbagbo, who won 46 percent of the vote, held power for a decade and already had overstayed his mandate by five years when the November election took place. 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 carried out a campaign of terror, kidnapping, killing and raping his opponents.
Gbagbo wrapped himself in the country’s flag as he took the oath of office at his shotgun inauguration.
“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.”
Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, and some 20,000 French citizens still lived there when the civil war broke out.
French troops were then tasked by the U.N. with monitoring a cease-fire and protecting foreign nationals in Ivory Coast, which was once an economic star, but began fading under Gbagbo’s administration.
During the 12-day siege of Abidjan, thousands of French and foreign nationals were evacuated by French tanks and helicopters to an army base on the edge of town, where a refugee camp was established for the privileged. Regular Ivorians were not permitted at the camp, and many ran out of food and water, forcing starving people onto the streets during the fighting.
Gbagbo had described efforts to oust him from power as tantamount to a foreign coup d’etat. On Monday, the French government sought to distance itself from Gbagbo’s arrest.
“France intervened at the request of the United Nations secretary general to neutralize the heavy weapons that Gbagbo was using against the civilian population and against (UN peacekeepers),” said foreign minister Alain Juppe. “After that it was the Ivory Coast republican forces, including Mr. Ouattara’s troops, who entered the presidential residence and arrested Mr. Gbagbo.”
Other West African nations had considered military intervention to remove Gbagbo, but those efforts never materialized and sanctions imposed on Gbagbo and his inner circle by the U.S. and European Union failed to dislodge him.
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.
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.
In the heartland of Gbagbo’s Bete tribe, there was no celebration and people looked subdued. A small group of dancing youths in the village Karriere shouted expletives about Gbagbo and chanted “they fished Gbagbo out of his hole.”
Other people repeated Ouattara’s initials over and over, chanting “ADO is our president.”
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Duekoue, Ivory Coast; Rukmini Callimachi in Indianapolis, Anita Powell in Johannesburg, Anita Snow at the United Nations, and Angela Charlton, Sophie Tetrel, Cecile Brisson and Julien Proult in Paris contributed to this report.
The Associated Press