ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The Ivory Coast strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, was captured on Monday after a week-long siege of his residence and placed under the control of his rival claimant to power, according to the French military and a senior American diplomat.
Both French ground forces and troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast’s election last year, had pressed into the city toward the residence where Mr. Gbagbo has been holed up.
“It is my pleasure to announce officially that the former president of Cote d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, has been arrested,” said Youssoufou Bamba, Mr. Ouattara’s representative to the United Nations. “He is alive and he will be brought to justice to respond to the crimes he committed. In this way, the Cote d’Ivoire reaches the end of its tragedy, of its nightmare.”
“His era is over,” Mr. Bamba added, saying Mr. Gbagbo was now “under our custody.”
Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, a French military spokesman in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s main city, confirmed Mr. Gbagbo’s capture but denied reports that the French military had been involved in seizing him, saying Mr. Gbagbo had been taken solely by forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara.
“I can affirm that categorically,” Commander Daguillon said. “There was not one single French soldier in the residence.”
In Paris, Laurent Teisseire, a spokesman for the French Defense Ministry, said, “Mr. Gbagbo surrendered to Mr. Ouattara’s forces.” While French forces “patrolled” in Abidjan on Monday, he said, “they did not enter into the perimeter” of the Gbagbo residence and did not participate in his capture.
For months, Mr. Gbagbo has refused to accept Mr. Ouattara’s victory, insisting that he is still the legitimate president of this West African nation.
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A senior American diplomat, who spoke in return for anonymity because of the fluidity of the situation, said Mr. Gbagbo was being held at Mr. Ouattara’s headquarters at the Golf Hôtel in Abidjan.
“My understanding is that he is at the Golf Hôtel and is under the control of the Ouattara government,” the diplomat said. Mr. Teisseire, the ministry spokesman in Paris, also said that Mr. Gbagbo had been taken to the hotel.
The capture came a day after French and United Nations helicopters fired missiles at key positions held by forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo. As fighting resumed Monday, columns of black smoke rose over Abidjan, and French troops were reported to be advancing toward Mr. Gbagbo’s residence.
Witnesses quoted by Reuters said a column of about 30 French armored vehicles, accompanied by ground forces, was pushing forward from one of the city’s main boulevards toward the residence, part of which had been destroyed by missiles fired from helicopters, according to one of Mr. Gbagbo’s top aides.
A French military spokesman in Abidjan said the aim of the operation on Monday was to avoid a “bloodbath,” but declined to elaborate, Reuters reported. Thick smoke could be seen rising from the Cocody area of the city — Ivory Coast’s commercial capital — where Mr. Gbagbo’s residence is located.
Accounts of the fighting on Monday seemed confused, with some reports suggesting that the French troops were moving on the presidential palace in a different area while forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara, had clashed with pro-Gbagbo forces near the residence. News reports spoke of helicopters again in action firing missiles and loud explosions reverberating around the city.
The United Nations said the attacks on Sunday were part of its “neutralization” campaign against heavy weapons that Mr. Gbagbo had used against the civilian population. The presidential palace and Mr. Gbagbo’s residence, where he has taken refuge, were both targets of the international attacks on Sunday, a United Nations spokesman in Abidjan confirmed.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, suggested Sunday that Mr. Gbagbo’s camp had fooled Western powers seeking his withdrawal by pretending to engage in surrender negotiations last week. “They in fact used that time to regroup their forces and redeploy heavy weapons,” Mr. Ban said in a statement from New York.
Mr. Gbagbo then used those weapons against civilians and the United Nations headquarters in Abidjan, as well as the Golf Hôtel, the headquarters of Mr. Ouattara, who heads Ivory Coast’s “legitimate government,” according to the statement.
Indeed, Mr. Gbagbo had appeared to be gaining ground militarily, recapturing several strategic neighborhoods in central Abidjan and even lobbing shells at the residence of the French ambassador, spokesmen in Paris and New York said.
The attacks on Sunday, though, appeared to be a setback for Mr. Gbagbo. Reached by telephone, Désiré Tagro, Mr. Gbagbo’s chief of staff, sounded shaken and angry after the helicopter attacks, saying that Mr. Gbagbo had been in the bedroom of his residence when they occurred and that the residence had been partly destroyed, with smoke rising from it.
“This is planned murder,” Mr. Tagro said. “The French are stronger than we are; there is nobody to say no to them. We don’t have the military means to respond to the French.”
A resident of the downtown Plateau neighborhood who watched the attack from his window said that French Gazelle combat helicopters had fired at least five missiles at Mr. Gbagbo’s residence on Sunday, and two at the presidential palace. Two United Nations Mi-24 helicopters also fired missiles at the palace, he said, and afterward he watched as a French Puma helicopter flew low over the central lagoon separating the palace from the Golf Hôtel and fired its 20-millimeter gun at Mr. Gbagbo’s positions on the heights of the Cocody neighborhood, where the residence is located.
Mr. Gbagbo’s renewed pugnacity before his capture had made it seem that the military confrontation between him and Mr. Ouattara would continue. A major strategic target, the state television station, was retaken last week by Mr. Gbagbo’s forces — providing once again an outlet for the nonstop campaign against the French and the United Nations that Mr. Gbagbo has waged so successfully.
Three days ago, after launching rocket-propelled grenades at the United Nations headquarters at the Sebroko Hotel, Mr. Gbagbo’s armored personnel carriers, mounted with heavy machine guns, attacked civilians in the Adjamé and Attecoubé neighborhoods, which contain many Ouattara supporters, Mr. Ban said. Hundreds sought refuge at the United Nations headquarters.
Then, on Saturday, Mr. Gbagbo’s forces attacked the Golf Hôtel directly for the first time, “from several directions,” Mr. Ban said in the statement. “These actions are unacceptable and cannot continue.” – NYT