Ivory Coast: Laurent Gbagbo arrested, now caged by French soldiers

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French War machine

The self-declared president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, was arrested Monday, the French Embassy in that country said.

Security forces of the Ivory Coast arrested him, the embassy said.

A Gbagbo adviser, Ahoua Don Mello, said earlier that the French military had stormed Gbagbo’s residence.

Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power had triggered a political crisis in the West African nation.

Forces loyal to the two men who claim to be president of Ivory Coast had clashed in the country’s main city overnight, the United Nations and a local resident told CNN Monday.

U.N. forces are not planning strikes on Gbabgo’s forces Monday but were prepared to hit his troops “if it’s needed,” said Hamadoun Toure, a spokesman for U.N. mission to the country.

The U.N. “was not involved” in the fighting between Gbagbo’s troops and those of Alassane Ouattara overnight, Toure said.

Gbagbo lost a presidential election to Ouattara in November, according to international observers, but refused to leave office. The two sides have been battling for control of the main city, Abidjan, for weeks.

U.N. military helicopters pounded heavy weapons positions of fighters loyal to Gbagbo on Sunday, United Nations officials said.

The attack came after pro-Gbagbo forces shelled the hotel where Ouattara and the United Nations are headquartered, said Choi Young-jin, head of the U.N. mission in the country.

“So we decided we cannot pass this moment without action,” Choi said.

Together with the French military, U.N. forces targeted key positions. Choi said there were “several camps” belonging to the Gbagbo loyalists. “We are taking them out.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he ordered the military operation Sunday “to prevent the use of heavy weapons which threaten the civilian population of Abidjan and our peacekeepers.”

The U.N. mission does not extend to extracting Gbagbo from his residence, Choi said. It would be up to pro-Ouattara forces to oust Gbagbo, he said.

Ban renewed his call for Gbagbo “to step aside immediately.”

“Civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence,” the secretary-general said. “The fighting must stop. Mr. Gbagbo needs to step aside immediately.”

U.N. spokesman Toure said that Gbagbo loyalists continue to control three main areas — the presidential palace, Gbagbo’s residence and the state television station, RTI. He said the French military and U.N. forces are in charge of the Abidjan port.

Laurent Gbagbo
Violence erupted after Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election in November and escalated into all-out war when Ouattara’s forces launched an offensive that brought them into Abidjan.

As Gbagbo has refused to cede power, the political stalemate has plunged the cocoa-producing West African nation into crisis.

The U.N. human rights office said Friday that its investigators found more than 100 bodies over 24 hours in three Ivory Coast towns.

Ouattara’s forces appeared to be on the verge of capturing Gbagbo last week, but he seems to have used an offer to negotiate as a way to buy time and gather his forces.

Mark Toner, acting deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, released a statement Saturday echoing that idea.

“It is clear that Gbagbo’s attempts at negotiation this week were nothing more than a ruse to regroup and rearm. Gbagbo’s continued attempt to force a result that he could not obtain at the ballot box reveals his callous disregard for the welfare of the Ivorian people, who will again suffer amid renewed heavy fighting in Abidjan,” he said.

Most areas of the capital, however, are now under U.N. or French military control, journalist Seyi Rhodes reported from the French military base in Port Bouet. The French military has been working to reconnect the disrupted water and electricity supply in the country’s main city.

Sources in Paris close to the African president dictator said he was held following an all-out assault on his official home in Abidjan and taken to the Golf Hotel.

Gbagbo’s adviser Toussaint Alain confirmed: ‘Gbagbo has been arrested by French special forces in his residence and has been handed over to the rebel leaders’ but his comments were not confirmed by the French foreign ministry.

A soldier loyal to internationally recognised Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara holds a modified rocket propelled grenade launcher as sources claimed Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo had been captured

Detained: Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo (left) has reportedly been captured and handed to rebel forces after internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara (right) announced a blockade around his rival’s residence

Forces loyal to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara were backed by French tanks and other armoured vehicles.

A French diplomatic source denied, however, that French forces had penetrated Gbagbo’s residence.

Ivory Coast’s ambassador in France, Ali Coulibaly, said shortly afterwards on French i-tele television that Gbagbo’s wife had also been detained.

‘It is the biggest ground assault since this started,’ said rebel spokesman Apollinaire Yapi of today’s events.
‘This time it will not stop. It will continue until Gbagbo steps down, or at least until he is pushed back into his residence.’
Mr Yapi added: ‘If he wants to stay there as a prisoner then he can. The main concern for Mr Ouattara is for normal life to resume.’

The source in Paris said Gbagbo had been ‘captured and will be put on trial.’

Claims of Gbagbo’s capture came after U.N. and French helicopters fired rockets on his presidential residence, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy saying the strikes were in retaliation for attacks on U.N. personnel, foreign diplomatic missions and civilians.

The head of the United Nations and President Sarkozy authorised the strikes that began Sunday evening, accusing Gbagbo of continuing to use heavy weapons against civilians in his bid to hang on to office more than four months after losing the presidential election.

Jean-Pierre Mignard, a lawyer for the internationally recognized winner of the November vote, said today he supported the French and U.N. strikes.

‘We are satisfied because the Gbagbo residence is a headquarters, and it is from this headquarters that shots from heavy weaponry are being fired,’ Mignard told Europe-1 radio.

‘Gbagbo is in the process of creating a situation of civil war to make the situation impossible.’

U.N. and French helicopters have bombarded Gbagbo’s presidential palace

Soldiers allied with Alassane Ouattara rest along the roadside at a republican forces operating base in the Youpougon neighborhood of Abidjan

Gbagbo has lost control of virtually the entire West African country over the last two weeks as forces loyal to internationally recognised winner Alassane Ouattara have swept down from the north and west into the commercial capital of Abidjan.

U.N. and French forces then joined the effort, and a first round of U.N. and French airstrikes destroyed much of his arsenal of tanks, mortars and other heavy weapons.

Forces loyal to Gbagbo had been encircled at the presidential residence but broke out on Saturday, ambushing a patrol of pro-Ouattara soldiers and advancing downtown.

Pro-Gbagbo forces also attacked U.N. headquarters on Saturday and again on Sunday, and also have attacked the hotel where Ouattara’s administration is based.

Yesterday, residents from nearby neighborhoods reported seeing two U.N. Mi-24 attack helicopters and a French helicopter open fire on the residence, where Gbagbo is holed up in a bunker. The residents couldn’t be named for fear of reprisals.

France’s Licorne (“Unicorn”) forces go for a military operation, in southern Ivory Coast

A soldier loyal to internationally recognised Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara holds a rocket propelled grenade launcher as a woman gets on a taxi on a road in Angre.

An Associated Press reporter saw the helicopters take off from the French military base followed minutes later by explosions coming from the direction of the residence.

Successive waves of French helicopters took off from the base in the following hours and additional bombardments could be heard.

Gbagbo has been living in a bunker in his residence in Abidjan for nearly a week. After a decade in power, he has refused to step aside even though the United Nations has ruled that he lost the November election to Ouattara.

Alassane Ouattara
Pro-Ouattara forces began an offensive late last month to install him in power, sweeping across the country in just days before meeting resistance in Abidjan.

Human Rights Watch has accused the pro-Ouattara forces of killing hundreds of civilians, raping political opponents and burning villages during the offensive to try to put Ouattara in office.

‘Everyone here is traumatised. We’ve all lost something – a member of the family, our homes, our belongings,’ said Philomene Houe, a 39-year-old soap maker in Duekoue, a town in the country’s southwest where hundreds have been killed in post-election violence.

‘While the international community has been focused on the political stalemate over the presidency, forces on both sides have committed numerous atrocities against civilians, their leaders showing little interest in reining them in,’ said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch Africa director.

Sources: CNN, The Mail
Photo: Reuters and AFP