Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast’s former president, has been seized by opposition forces after an assault on his residence with help from French armoured vehicles, helicopters and troops.
The UN mission in Ivory Coast confirmed that Mr Gbagbo, who was declared the loser in November’s second-round run-off election but had refused to step down, had “surrendered” to the forces of Alassane Ouattara, the president-elect.
“We got a phone call from the Ouattara government telling us of the arrest of President Gbagbo and his wife and they are now at the Golf Hotel,” UN peacekeeping mission spokesman Hamadoun Touré said. The hotel, Mr Ouattara’s base since November, has been heavily protected by UN forces.
The capture marks a turning point in a protracted and bloody tussle for power between the leaders of the two parallel governments in the world’s biggest cocoa producer. More than 1,500 people have been killed and a million have fled amid the conflict, including 100,000 into neighbouring Liberia, itself fragile as it recovers from 13 years of civil war.
“Our country has turned a painful page in its history,” Mr Ouattara said on his television channel, urging militias to lay down their weapons and promising that Mr Gbagbo would undergo a fair trial.
International politicians have been quick to call for a fair process that treats Mr Gbagbo with “respect”, and US President Barack Obama said the new president must now govern on behalf of all the people of Ivory Coast, “including those who did not vote for him”.
Television footage broadcast on the same pro-Ouattara television channel showed Mr Gbagbo towelling off sweat in a hotel room as he changed from a dark tie-dyed African shirt into a green Hawaiian one worn over a sagging white vest. Mr Gbagbo, under custody, later broadcast a call for the fighting to stop.
Mr Ouattara, whose loyalists have been accused by rights groups of grave abuses during the descent back to civil war, said the country would establish a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate accusations of atrocities against civilians by both sides.
Early reports from Mr Gbagbo’s camp said French special forces had seized him from his hideout in an underground bunker below his residence. France, which is already facing scrutiny as it pursues unprecedented military engagement in three theatres in Afghanistan and Libya as well as Ivory Coast, denied the reports.
Jean-Marc Simon, French ambassador to Ivory Coast, said Mr Gbagbo was arrested by Mr Ouattara’s forces, and French officials justified their assault by saying it was designed to protect civilians. “The aim is to ensure a bloodbath is averted,” said Frédéric Daguillon, spokesman for the French force in Ivory Coast.
UK foreign secretary William Hague said Mr Gbagbo and Mr Ouattara would hold talks at the hotel, while a senior French government official told the Financial Times that Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr Ouattara had already held a “long conversation”.
Such close collaboration with the country’s former colonial power is likely to fan the controversy that already surrounds the circumstances of Mr Gbagbo’s seizure, after weeks of failed efforts to negotiate his exit. France has justified its intervention in Ivory Coast as an attempt to end atrocities against civilians, but its role will be questioned because of the alleged involvement of Mr Ouattara’s forces in atrocities in the west of the country.
France will be keen to withdraw from its military involvement as soon as possible, to avoid tainting the president-elect’s chances as a national leader. Mr Gbagbo has long sought to paint Mr Ouattara as a colonial stooge run by French puppet-masters.
Fighting has raged intermittently in the commercial capital Abidjan for 11 days. Neither the efforts of former rebels allied to Mr Ouattara nor international diplomatic initiatives succeeded in persuading Mr Gbagbo to hand over power formally in the constitutional court.