NEW YORK // Ivory Coast's political strongman Laurent Gbagbo was under arrest last night after combined forces stormed his bunker in Abidjan.
Mr Gbagbo's capture came after days of heavy fighting in which French and UN helicopters fired rockets at his presidential residence in the West African nation's largest city.
"We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker. He was there with his wife and his son," said Issard Soumahro, a pro-Ouattara fighter.
The former president, who has held power since 2000 and stubbornly refused to admit defeat in November's presidential election, was taken to his rival Alassane Ouattara's temporary hotel headquarters, with his wife Simone and son Michel.
Forces backing the internationally recognised Mr Ouattara began a rapid offensive to oust Mr Gbagbo last month, and hundreds have died in fighting in the past few weeks.
Mr Soumahro said the ground offensive came after the French launched airstrikes before dawn yesterday. He said Mr Gbagbo was tired and had been slapped by a soldier, but was not otherwise hurt. Mr Gbagbo was interrogated and taken to the Golf Hotel, from where Mr Ouattara has been trying to run his presidency since the November 28 vote. Officials were waiting for him to sign a document formally handing power over to Mr Ouattara, Mr Soumahro said.
Youssoufou Bamba, Mr Ouattara's envoy in New York, said the detention marked the "start of the end of the violence" that has ravaged Ivory Coast since November's ballot.
"He has to face trial and meet justice. If we had accepted the outcome of the result of the election four months ago, he would have saved many lives. So he bears the entire responsibility of those killings," Mr Bamba told The National.
"He was clinging to power, paying money and bringing a lot of weaponry to impose his rule by force. Now, he is a defeated person, so he has to face that new reality and there will be no problem. Justice will prevail."
Mr Bamba did not confirm whether Mr Gbagbo faced prosecution in Ivory Coast or in a foreign courtroom, such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The West African nation is "not divided" any more, he added.
Mr Gbagbo had refused to step down since UN-certified elections in November showed Mr Ouattara won 54 per cent of the votes.
"This is an important step in the process, but we cannot reach euphoria because the crisis is not over," said Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping. "What's extremely important now is restoring law and order inside Abidjan and the country … and there is still a humanitarian crisis."
Daniel Bekele, an Africa expert for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Mr Gbagbo should now face a fair trial and "not be granted a golden exile in a country that would shield him from national or international prosecution".
"To end over a decade of abuse and impunity, Ouattara's new government needs to ensure that all those responsible for the crimes that have characterized this painful period of Cote d'Ivoire's history face fair justice, regardless of their rank or political allegiance," said Mr Bekele.
"It's a victory … considering all the evil that Laurent Gbagbo inflicted on Ivory Coast," Mr Ouattara's ambassador to France, Ali Coulibaly, said on France-Info radio.
"We must not in any way make a royal gift to Laurent Gbagbo in making him a martyr," Mr Coulibaly said.
For years, Mr Gbagbo had postponed holding a presidential election. When the country's election commission and international observers declared he lost the election after it was finally held, he refused to step down.
He defied near-universal pressure to cede power to Mr Ouattara. The two set up parallel administrations that vied for control of the country.
Mr Ouattara drew his support from the UN and world powers. Mr Gbagbo maintained his hold over the country's military and security forces who terrorised his opponents.
He wrapped himself in the country's flag as he took the oath of office.
"No one has the right to call on foreign armies to invade his country," Mr Gbagbo declared in a televised address on New Year's Eve. "Our greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack."
Other African nations considered military intervention to remove Mr Gbagbo, but it never materialised and sanctions imposed on Mr Gbagbo and his inner circle by the US and European Union failed to dislodge him. Human-rights groups accused his security forces of abducting and killing hundreds of political opponents as the deadlock dragged on.
While the United Nations passed resolutions allowing its peacekeepers to intervene to protect civilians, anti-Gbagbo neighbourhoods in Abidjan continued to be pummeled with mortars. So many people were killed that the morgue began stacking corpses on the floor.
Some critics had accused Mr Gbagbo of clinging to power to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has begun preliminary examination of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast, including accusations levelled against forces seeking to install Mr Ouattara.
Mr Ouattara tried to assert his authority from the Golf Hotel, protected by UN peacekeepers, while the would-be president tried to financially strangle Mr Gbagbo by imposing an embargo on cocoa exports. In a desperate move, Mr Gbagbo seized control of foreign banks in Abidjan - prompting their flight and a liquidity crunch.
After months of political deadlock, forces backing Mr Ouattara began a dramatic offensive in late March, taking the administrative capital and reaching Abidjan in just days. They met resistance in Abidjan, where Mr Gbagbo and his family sought refuge in an underground bunker at the presidential residence.
On April 4, UN and French forces intervened to destroy Mr Gbagbo's arsenal of weapons, firing rockets from helicopters and ultimately sending French tanks to Mr Gbagbo's home.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press