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France Denies Role in Arrest of Ivory Coast Leader

West Africa
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — France on Tuesday renewed its denials of involvement in the arrest of the strongman of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, who was captured and taken into custody by his rival on Monday, ending a four-month standoff that left hundreds dead, strained international diplomacy and dragged the country back into civil war. With […]

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — France on Tuesday renewed its denials of involvement in the arrest of the strongman of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, who was captured and taken into custody by his rival on Monday, ending a four-month standoff that left hundreds dead, strained international diplomacy and dragged the country back into civil war.

With French helicopters in the skies nearby, Mr. Gbagbo surrendered to his rival’s forces as they stormed his residence in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital, on Monday, sending his chief of staff outside to signal his defeat.

“The fighting is over,” Mr. Gbagbo said on his rival’s television station after his arrest. “So he went out with a white handkerchief. The fighting is over.”

French officials immediately said their forces, which had been patrolling the streets in a column of armored cars, had not played a direct part in the arrest, seeking to avoid the accusation that they had used military force to replace one African leader with another — a suggestion that could all too easily rekindle associations with France’s long interventionist history in colonial and post-colonial Africa. The suspicions have prompted members of the French opposition to demand clarifications of the French role.

“What displeases me in this story is that they’re trying to recount nonsense to the French,” said Roland Dumas, an outspoken lawyer who has backed Mr. Gbagbo, and who formerly served as foreign minister. “The French army delivered Mr. Laurent Gbagbo to his adversary,” Mr. Dumas said on French radio. “It even brought him to his adversary’s home, a bit like in the traditions of bygone times, of antiquity.”

“This will leave traces in African countries,” he said.

But on Tuesday, French Defense Minister Gérard Longuet said his country’s action in Ivory Coast had helped prevent further strife and a “humanitarian tragedy.” He dismissed suggestions that France had intervened in a “colonial” manner as “totally absurd.”

“No French soldier, no soldier of the Onuci, furthermore, entered the presidential residence” during Mr. Gbagbo’s arrest, Mr. Longuet said in an interview on French radio, referring to the United Nations force in Ivory Coast by its acronym. “All the images will inevitably be available.”

France’s military forces in Ivory Coast, which currently number 1,700, will soon be reduced to “a few hundred,” he added.

For months, African diplomats and heads of state had shuttled back and forth to Abidjan, pleading with Mr. Gbagbo to step down after losing a presidential election last year. The United Nations, the United States and the European Union demanded his resignation, imposing severe economic sanctions that crippled the economy — but failed to push Mr. Gbagbo from power.

Instead, it took devastating airstrikes by French and United Nations helicopters to help end Mr. Gbagbo’s gamble to defy the international community, fight off his rival, Alassane Ouattara, and extend his 10-year rule.

On Sunday night and into Monday morning, the helicopters hovered near the presidential offices and the palatial residence where Mr. Gbagbo had been holed up with his wife underground for days, firing missile blasts that were officially aimed at destroying the heavy weapons outside, but also reduced parts of Mr. Gbagbo’s last redoubts to smoking rubble.

United Nations and French officials, wary of being seen as exceeding their mandate by enforcing regime change, insisted that their actions were solely intended to protect civilians, entirely independent of the final push to capture Mr. Gbagbo by his rival’s forces.

“There was not one single French soldier in the residence,” said Cmdr. Frédéric Daguillon, a French military spokesman in Abidjan.

But they readily acknowledged that the international strikes had broken Mr. Gbagbo’s defenses, leaving him open to capture.

Alain Le Roy, head of the United Nations peacekeeping operations, said the strike on Mr. Gbagbo’s heavy weapons may have helped clear the way for his rivals to storm the residence. But he stressed that there had been no coordination between United Nations forces and those of Mr. Ouattara and that the United Nations’ aim had been wholly geared toward protecting civilians.

Similarly, a French military spokesman, Thierry Burkhard, said Mr. Gbagbo’s enemies had “taken advantage” of the French and United Nations attacks to launch their own.

“He was really weakened by the strikes,” said Hamadoun Touré, a spokesman for the United Nations operation in Ivory Coast.

President Obama commended the French and the United Nations, saying Mr. Gbagbo’s “illegitimate claim to power has finally come to an end.” The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called the arrest “the end of a chapter that should never have been.”

But the arrest did not spell the end of the crisis, analysts warned. The airstrikes by France and the United Nations were expected to infuriate the many Gbagbo supporters who have embraced his anti-Western fervor. Even though Mr. Ouattara is recognized internationally as the winner of last year’s election, Gbagbo supporters may now have even more reason to see him as illegitimate, forced upon them by outside intervention.

Mr. Ouattara’s standing overseas will be also be tested by accusations that forces loyal to him killed hundreds of civilians as they swept across the country, weakening his reputation as the one with the higher moral ground in the standoff.

“Our country has just turned a painful page of its history,” Mr. Ouattara said in a televised address Monday night. He insisted that Mr. Gbagbo’s safety was being guaranteed, but announced that he would request that judicial proceedings be opened against Mr. Gbagbo, his wife and “all those who have been apprehended.” They will receive “dignified treatment,” and their rights will be respected, he vowed.

“I therefore call upon all my compatriots who might be seized by a feeling of vengeance to abstain from any act of reprisal or violence,” Mr. Ouattara said.

After his arrest, Mr. Gbagbo was taken with his wife to the Golf Hôtel, the shabby lagoon-side resort where he had blockaded Mr. Ouattara for four months. In another strange reversal, Mr. Le Roy said that Mr. Gbagbo and his wife, Simone, were now being guarded by the same United Nations officials who had previously been protecting Mr. Ouattara.

Images broadcast on Ivorian television showed a sweating, plaintive Mr. Gbagbo after his arrest. At one point, he appeared in a white tank-top undershirt, wiping dry his face and underarms with a towel as men dressed in camouflage looked on, smiling.

In parts of Abidjan the reaction was subdued. Few were out after days of urban warfare that had kept the city’s residential areas in lockdown and provoked a serious humanitarian crisis. Water and food are lacking. Sporadic bursts of gunfire could still be heard, and both Mr. Ouattara’s government and the United Nations said a top priority was disarming the thousands of militant youths given weapons by Mr. Gbagbo. Bodies still spilled out of bombed-out vehicles on the city’s eerily deserted highways.

“We are going out a little bit, taking advantage of this little wind of liberty,” said Latif Ganiyou, a resident of Cocody, where the climactic battle for Mr. Gbagbo’s residence took place. “We’re breathing a little again. The fear is gone, and we are relieved.”

In the Abobo district, though, where Mr. Gbagbo focused his bloody campaign of armed repression against Ouattara supporters, there was jubilation. For weeks the neighborhood lived in terror of the descents of Mr. Gbagbo’s troops, ride-throughs in which guns crackled and citizens fell dead in the dusty streets.

“In Abobo, people are dancing and singing,” said a resident, Ahmed Fofana. “It’s like a holiday, really a great holiday. Everybody is out. I’m so happy, I hardly know how to express my joy.”

In his speech Monday night, Mr. Ouattara, subdued after months of fear and uncertainty, promised a new beginning for the country.

“Today a white page opens in front of us, white like the white of our flag, symbol of hope and peace,” Mr. Ouattara said in his flat, precise voice. He called for “reconciliation and forgiveness.”

His rough-looking soldiers in knitted caps, former rebels from the 2002 uprising that split the country, chanted victory songs softly on the grounds of the hotel.

Adam Nossiter reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Scott Sayare from Paris; and Dan Bilefsky from the United Nations.