ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo was arrested on Monday after French armoured vehicles closed in on the compound where the self-proclaimed president had been holed up in a bunker.
A column of more than 30 French armoured vehicles moved in on Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan after helicopter gunships attacked the compound overnight in bid to end a months-long political standoff that had descended into civil war.
Gbagbo refused to step down when Alassane Ouattara won last November’s presidential election, according to results certified by the United Nations, reigniting a civil war that has claimed more than a thousand lives and uprooted a million people.
“Yes, he has been arrested,” Affoussy Bamba, a spokeswoman for Ouattara, told Reuters.
Gbagbo’s spokesman in Ivory Coast, Ahoua Don Mello, told Reuters: “President Laurent Gbagbo came out of his bunker and surrendered to the French without offering resistance.”
French officials said Gbagbo had been arrested by Ouattara’s forces backed by the United Nations and the French military.
Shortly after the news broke, Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said the French president had just had a long telephone conversation with Ouattara.
French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said: “Just after 3 o’clock, the ex-president Laurent Gbagbo handed himself over to the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast. At no moment did French forces enter either the garden or the residence of Gbagbo.”
A French Defence Ministry official said: “It’s not French forces who arrested Laurent Gbagbo ... It was Ouattara forces supported by UNOCI (the U.N. mission) and Licorne (French forces).”
Ouattara’s spokesman Bamba said Gbagbo had been taken to the Hotel Golf in Abidjan where his rival has had his headquarters since the presidential election last November.
United Nations officials confirmed Gbagbo was being held by Ouattara’s forces.
“The nightmare has ended,” Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said on Ouattara’s TCI television channel.
In Abidjan’s Banco neighbourhood, about 50 cheering youths celebrated the news of Gbagbo’s arrest.
“Let’s hope the country can find peace and stability. I‘m very happy,” said Jean Desire Aitcheou.
“A big thankyou to France for having liberated us,” said Fidi Ouattara (no relation to presidential claimant).
Earlier on Monday, residents reported heavy fighting between forces loyal to Ouattara and those backing Gbagbo around Abidjan’s Cocody and Plateau districts.
Hundreds of fresh pro-Ouattara troops massed at a base camp just north of Abidjan, where a small bus arrived, filled with new Kalashnikov rifles still in their transparent blue wrappers.
The French armoured vehicles left their base in the south and headed towards downtown Abidjan early on Monday.
“Armed and ready for combat,” the commanding officer ordered. The men cocked their weapons ready to fire as the vehicles rolled out of the base.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast with more than 1,600 troops in the country, took a lead role in efforts to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power, infuriating his supporters who accuse Paris of neo-colonialism.
Some Gbagbo supporters around Cocody district, where his residence is located, tried to halt the French armoured vehicles, kneeling in front of them praying, but were quickly dispersed when another round of firing began.
A resident said he saw 15 pro-Gbagbo soldiers surrender their weapons and battle fatigues to the French soldiers. A French army source later said more than 100 members of the pro-Gbagbo army had surrendered their weapons.
The arrest of Gbagbo and the lifting of European Union sanctions on the two main ports in the world’s top cocoa-producing nation mean cocoa exports may be possible by next week.
Cocoa prices, which had earlier risen sharply on reports of fighting, fell back when Gbagbo’s arrest was announced.
Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion bond rallied more than half a point on Monday, reversing earlier three-point losses, after Gbagbo was arrested.
Helicopter attacks a week ago on Gbagbo’s heavy weapons by the United Nations and France appeared to bring Gbagbo’s forces to the point of surrender, but they used a lull in fighting to regroup before taking more ground in Abidjan.
Ouattara’s forces swept from the north to coastal Abidjan almost unopposed more than a week ago in a drive to install their leader as president.
Gbagbo’s defeat had appeared imminent last week and talks took place between the two sides. But Gbagbo’s soldiers dug in, holding on to swathes of the city and frustrating hopes of a swift end to the conflict.
Even now, Ouattara’s ability to unify the West African country may be undermined by reports of atrocities against civilians since his forces charged into Abidjan. Ouattara’s camp has denied involvement.
Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that forces loyal to Ouattara had killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 women and girls perceived as belonging to Gbagbo’s camp and burned at least 10 villages in western Ivory Coast.
Those loyal Gbagbo, in turn, killed more than 100 alleged supporters of Ouattara in March.