Ivory Coast Strongman Gbagbo Is Captured

Originally published on April 11, 2011 10:04 pm

Ivory Coast's violent political struggle ended Monday when strongman Laurent Gbagbo was pried from an underground bunker at the presidential residence in Abidjan and captured.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported that Gbagbo was seized by a combination of French forces under a U.N. mandate and troops loyal to democratically elected leader Alassane Ouattara. A spokesman for Gbagbo said the former leader surrendered without resistance.

The country's elected president, Alassane Ouattara, heralded "the dawn of a new era of hope" after the standoff ended.

"After more than four months of post-electoral crisis, marked by so many human lives lost, we are finally at the dawn of a new era of hope," Ouattara said in an address to the nation on radio and television.

Ouattara cut short speculation that Gbagbo would be delivered to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, calling for an Ivorian investigation into the former president, his wife and their entourage.

"Every measure has been taken to assure the physical integrity of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, his wife and all those arrested," he said. "They will receive dignified treatment and their rights will be respected."

Ouattara also said he intended to establish a truth and reconciliation commission and called on all fighters to put down their arms.

President Obama welcomed Gbagbo's capture, calling it a victory for the democratic will of the Ivorian people, who "have the chance to begin to reclaim their country, solidify their democracy and rebuild a vibrant economy."

The arrest came after a pre-dawn attack by French forces Monday.

Issard Soumahro, a pro-Ouattara fighter at the scene, told The Associated Press that the ground offensive to seize Gbagbo began after the French launched airstrikes until at least 3 a.m. Monday. When the strikes ended, Ouattara's fighters began their final push. They entered the presidential compound just after midday as a French armored advance secured large parts of Abidjan.

"We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker. He was there with his wife and his son. He wasn't hurt, but he was tired and his cheek was swollen from where a soldier had slapped him," Soumahro said.

TV footage showed Gbagbo emerging from his bunker in a white sleeveless undershirt, and then donning a colorful print shirt. He was reportedly interrogated and brought to Abidjan's Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has been trying to run his presidency since the Nov. 28 vote.

Witnesses at the hotel said Gbagbo was brought in with his wife, Simone, as well as his son and about 50 members of his entourage.

Gbagbo could be forced to answer for his soldiers' crimes, but an international trial threatens to stoke the divisions that Ouattara will now have to heal.

"[Ouattara] didn't want to come to power this way, through the barrel of a gun," said Richard Downie, an Africa expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "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."

Residents of the commercial capital of Abidjan refrained from celebrating in public after word of Gbagbo's arrest, still fearful of the hundreds of armed fighters that continued to prowl the streets, refusing to believe their leader had been seized. Sporadic gunfire echoed across the city Monday night.

Gbagbo's capture ends a deadly presidential tug of war that began after he lost the U.N.-certified elections to Ouattara but refused to cede power. Gbagbo declared that he was the country's elected leader and vowed never to surrender.

The months-long dispute — in which more than a million civilians fled their homes and untold numbers were killed — pushed the world's largest cocoa producer to the brink of renewed civil war. Gbagbo's forces controlled the commercial capital, Abidjan, while Ouattara was contained inside his headquarters inside the Golf Hotel, surrounded by U.N. peacekeepers.

The tables turned rapidly when pro-Ouattara forces swept through the country and into Abidjan, Quist-Arcton said. U.N. and French attack helicopters have been bombarding the presidential residence to force the strongman from the bunker he has occupied for weeks.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged support Monday to the new government of Ivory Coast and said he hoped to speak to Ouattara as soon as possible.

"This is an end of a chapter that should never have been," Ban said. "We have to help them to restore stability, rule of law, and address all humanitarian and security issues."

Ban said that Gbagbo's "physical safety should be ensured, and I'm going to urge that."

Ouattara's ambassador to France, Ali Coulibaly, told France-Info radio that Gbagbo 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."

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been covering the conflict. She's on the line from Abidjan, the capital. And, Ofeibea, what's been happening today?

OFEIBEA QUIST: Briefly, there was a cease-fire last week but that seemed to (unintelligible) the U.N. to have been a ruse. And now after all these weeks of fighting and death to civilians, it appears that the fighting has ended with Laurent Gbagbo handing himself in.

INSKEEP: Now, of course, rebels had taken over most of the country before the French and U.N. forces became directly involved, but it does sound like the outside forces tipped the balance here.

QUIST: The tables were turned dramatically about a week and a half ago. At that point Laurent Gbagbo controlled the south of the country and Alassane Ouattara forces the northern half and the center. But in a rapid night move sweep through the country, they were at the gates of Abidjan. And that's where most of the deadly fighting has taken place these past two weeks.

INSKEEP: Well, Ofeibea, you mentioned a few times there Alassane Ouattara - he's the man who according to the international community won the election last year, presumably with the old president now in custody. He gets to take full control of the country. As best you can determine, what is the condition now of the country that he takes over after what was effectively a civil war?

QUIST: So, it's a divided nation - reconciliation, healing -those are the top priorities. But these - whoever (unintelligible) you believe, that the results of the election, Alassane Ouatarra, Laurent Gbagbo, won about 50-50. So Ouatarra will have to convince about half of the country that he is president of all Ivorians, not just the people who voted for them. This is a long, long struggle. The fighting may be over for now; there may be calm (unintelligible) but then there are plenty of obstacles and hurdles in the future.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, where the former president is now in custody of forces working with the new president. Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.