ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo has been captured by forces of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized leader of the country, according to the French Embassy.
Images of Gbabgo in custody appeared on state television (see video below). He was in a sweaty undershirt after being captured by Ouattara's forces when his bunker hideout was on fire. Gbagbo's appearance may have been humiliating but he still stubbornly refused to sign a statement ceding his claim to be the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast.
Alassane Ouattara, in contrast, appeared on state television looking very presidential. Ouattara said Gbagbo would face justice. He said a truth and reconciliation commission would investigate allegations of atrocities against civilians by both sides in the conflict. Ouattara also called for calm and urged militias to lay down their weapons.
"I call my fellow country men to abstain from all form of reprisal and violence," said Ouattara. "Our country has turned a painful page in its history."
The ground assault by Ouattara's forces on Gbagbo came after air and ground attacks by U.N. and French helicopter gunships that began Sunday lasted until the early hours of Monday. French armored tanks rolled into the area surrounding Gbagbo's residence in the Cocody district of Abidjan. Then Ouattara's troops surrounded the bunker and entered it to capture Gbagbo.
Gbagbo surrendered at the entrance to the residence, while four French Gazelle helicopters hovered over the area. He was taken to the Golf Hotel where Ouattara has set up his offices and which is heavily guarded by U.N. peacekeepers. Gbagbo was arrested with his wife, Simone, son Michel and about 50 other close aides.
Gbagbo “is alive and he will be brought to justice to respond to the crimes he committed. In this way, the Cote d’Ivoire reaches the end of its tragedy, of its nightmare. ... His era is over,” said Youssoufou Bamba, Ouattara’s representative to the United Nations in New York, according to the New York Times.
Gbagbo's arrest is hoped to bring Ivory Coast back from the brink of civil war and to resume ordinary economic and political life. Ouattara has a tough challenge in bringing the country back to normal life. Gbagbo won 46 percent of the vote and those voters must be persuaded to back the new Ouattara government.
It is expected that Gbagbo will face charges for abuses of human rights during his rule. It is not known if he will face charges in Ivory Coast, but many expect that the International Criminal Court in the Hague will press charges against the former leader.
Ouattara won the November elections, according to Ivory Coast's election officials and the United Nations, but Gbagbo, who had been president for 10 years, refused to acknowledge defeat and step down from power. The dispute pushed the world's largest cocoa producer to the brink of renewed civil war.
Late last month forces backing Ouattara began an offensive to oust him and quickly took control of most of Ivory Coast. Ouattara's forces met resistance in Abidjan, the country's largest city. Gbagbo took refuge from the heavily fortified bunker beneath the presidential residence.
On Sunday, U.N. and French forces bombed the heavy artillery surrounding Gbagbo's bunker.
United Nations and French helicopters fired rockets on Gbagbo's residence in reprisal attacks for strikes on U.N. peacekeepers.
Witnesses said two Mi-24 attack helicopters and one French helicopter fired on the compound where Gbagbo was holed up, AP reported. Smoke was seen rising from the building.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he authorized the strikes in retaliation for heavy-weapon attacks against civilians and U.N.. Photographs showed other positions held by Gbagbo's troops have also apparently come under attack, with fires sending plumes of smoke across the Abidjan skyline.
"The continued use of heavy weapons against the civilian population and our peacekeepers, as well as the attack against the Headquarters of the legitimate Government, have compelled me, once again, to instruct [U.N. forces] to use all necessary means to prevent the use of these weapons," he said.
Gbagbo, whose refusal give up on a decade in power after losing an election last November to rival Alassane Ouattara triggered conflict, confirmed the attacks via his advisor in France, AP said.
Gbagbo's troops have launched repeated attacks on U.N. patrols and buildings in recent days after suffering a string of heavy defeats at the hands of Ouattara's forces.
The U.N. secretary-general accused Gbagbo and his supporters of deception, pretending to mull over possible peace negotiations while regrouping for attack. He repeated calls for Gbagbo to "step aside immediately."
Gbagbo has lost control of most of Ivory Coast over the past two weeks as forces loyal to Ouattara made lightning advances.
But while Ouattara's claim on the presidency is backed by the international community, his reputation has suffered in recent days following claims of civilian casualties at the hands of his supporters.
A Human Rights Watch report published over the weekend said his troops were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths and rape attacks in the west of the country.
Ouattara has promised a full investigation into the claims, reported by the Guardian.
"There are accusations of abuses here and there. Mr Ouattara has said they have to be condemned, whoever did them," his spokesman Guillaume Soro told the paper.
"It has been reported in the west that there was a massacre. There will be an investigation into who did what, be it a group close to Ouattara's forces or Gbagbo's forces. Before this investigation, no conclusions can be drawn."