ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast The elected president of this West African nation heralded “the dawn of a new era of hope” Monday when a bloody, four-month standoff ended with the capture of his rival, the longtime strongman who lost the vote but refused to give up power.
Video of former President Laurent Gbagbo being led into a room in a white undershirt was broadcast on television as proof of his detention. He would not sign a statement formally ceding power after losing a Nov. 28 election to economist Alassane Ouattara.
More than 1 million civilians fled their homes and untold numbers were killed in the power struggle between the two rivals that threatened to reignite a civil war in the world’s largest cocoa producer. Gbagbo’s security forces have been accused of using cannons, 60 mm mortars and 50-caliber machine guns to mow down opponents during the standoff.
“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 Barack 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.”
Gbagbo, who ruled the former French colony for a decade, was pulled from his burning residence by Ouattara’s troops following fighting earlier in the day. The pro-Ouattara forces had received support by French tanks and helicopters.
Residents of the commercial capital of Abidjan refrained from celebrating in public, still fearful of the many armed fighters prowling the streets and refusing to believe their leader had been arrested. Sporadic gunfire echoed across the city Monday night.
Gbagbo, 65, could be forced to answer for his soldiers’ crimes, even though an international trial threatens to stoke the divisions that Ouattara will now have to heal as president.
Gbagbo’s dramatic arrest came after days of heavy fighting in which French and U.N. helicopters fired rockets at arms depots around the city and targets within the presidential compound. Ouattara’s final push began just after French airstrikes ceased at around 3 a.m. Monday. A simultaneous French armored advance secured large parts of the city, and pro-Ouattara troops entered the presidential compound just after midday.
“We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker,” Issard Soumahro, a pro-Ouattara fighter at the scene, told The Associated Press.
He added that Gbagbo was tired and had been slapped by a soldier, but was not otherwise hurt.