ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo was arrested on Monday after French armored vehicles closed in on the compound where he has been holed up in a bunker.
A column of more than 30 French armored vehicles moved in on Gbagbo’s residence in central Abidjan after helicopter gunships attacked the compound overnight.
“Yes, he has been arrested,” Affoussy Bamba, a spokeswoman for Ouattara, told Reuters.
Earlier a Gbagbo adviser in Parishad told Reuters that French special forces had detained Gbagbo after breaking into the compound with tanks.
“Gbagbo has been arrested by French special forces in his residence and has been handed over to the rebel leaders,” Gbagbo adviser Toussaint Alain told Reuters in Paris.
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 opposing resistance.”
A French Foreign Ministry source said Gbagbo had been arrested by Ouattara’s forces backed by the United Nations and French forces.
Bamba said Gbagbo had been taken to the Hotel Golf in Abidjan, where Ouattara has had his headquarters since the presidential election last November.
Gbagbo had refused to step down after Ouattara won the 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.
Residents reported heavy fighting on Monday morning between forces loyal to Ouattara and those backing Gbagbo around Abidjan’s Cocody and Plateau districts, still controlled by forces loyal to Gbagbo.
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 armored vehicles, each carrying between four to eight men, left their base in the south and headed toward 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 armored 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.
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 Ouattara as the top cocoa producer’s leader.
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 over 20 women and girls perceived as belonging Gbagbo 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.
Relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), said on Sunday that the battle for Abidjan is pushing its four million residents ever closer to a health disaster.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Vicky Buffery in Paris and Bate Felix in Dakar; writing by Bate Felix; editing by Giles Elgood)
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