Abidjan: Ivory Coast`s President Alassane Ouattara called on all fighters to put down their arms now that the longtime strongman has been captured after his refusal to cede power sparked violence leaving bodies piled at morgues.
More than 1 million civilians fled their homes and untold numbers were killed in the more than four-month power struggle between the two rivals. The standoff threatened to re-ignite a civil war in the world`s largest cocoa producer, once divided in two by a civil war nearly a decade ago.
"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 late Monday.
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 Laurent Gbagbo had been arrested.
An Associated Press reporter heard heavy fire in a southern district of Abidjan lasting into early Tuesday. Residents in the rest of the city said that most of the combat had ceased, though gunfire continued around three university student residences where pro-Gbagbo militia are believed to stay.
Gbagbo`s security forces have been accused of using mortars and machine guns to mow down opponents during the standoff. Gbagbo could be forced to answer for his soldiers` crimes, but an international trial threatens to stoke the divisions that Ouattara will now have to heal as president.
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. Ouattara also called on his supporters to refrain from retaliatory violence and said he intended to establish a truth and reconciliation commission.
"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."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Ouattara on Monday and said he expected that with Gbagbo in custody, "any further bloodshed will be avoided," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement late Monday.
Nesirky said that, at Gbagbo`s request, the UN peacekeeping mission will provide security and protection while Gbagbo is in custody. He said Ban stressed to Ouattara "the need to ensure that there is no retaliation against Mr. Gbagbo`s supporters."
In Geneva, UN human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said their office had learned of the arrest of an unspecified number of Gbagbo`s forces.
"It is unclear where they were taken and how they are being treated," she said. "Our human rights staff in Abidjan are looking into this and monitoring it. International fair trial standards include the need to press charges as soon as possible after arrest."
Gbagbo, who ruled the former French colony for a decade, was pulled from his burning residence by Ouattara`s troops Monday following fighting earlier in the day. The pro-Ouattara forces had received support by French tanks and helicopters.
Gbagbo`s dramatic arrest came after days of heavy fighting in which French and UN 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, said to a news agency.
Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war and was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. The long-delayed presidential election was intended to bring together the nation but instead unleashed months of violence.
Gbagbo already had overstayed his mandate by five years when he called the fall election and won 46 percent of the runoff vote. When the country`s election commission and international observers declared on Dec. 2 that he lost the balloting, he refused to step down.
The former history professor defied near-universal international pressure to hand over power to Ouattara. The two set up parallel administrations that vied for control of the one-time West African economic powerhouse.
Ouattara drew his support from the UN and world powers. Gbagbo maintained his hold over the country`s military and security forces who carried out a campaign of terror, kidnapping, killing and raping opponents.
Since late March, thousands of French and foreign nationals in Abidjan were evacuated by French tanks and helicopters to an army base on the edge of the city, where a refugee camp was set up for the privileged. Regular Ivorians were not permitted at the camp, and many ran out of food and water, forcing hungry people onto the streets during the fighting.
Gbagbo had described efforts against him as tantamount to a foreign coup d`etat.
Ouattara tried to assert his authority from the Golf Hotel, protected by UN peacekeepers, and imposed an embargo on cocoa exports in a bid to strangle Gbagbo financially. In a desperation, Gbagbo seized control of foreign banks in Abidjan — prompting their flight and a liquidity crunch.
In the heartland of Gbagbo`s Bete tribe, people were subdued. A small group of dancing youths in the village of Karriere shouted expletives about Gbagbo and chanted, "They fished Gbagbo out of his hole."
Other people repeated Ouattara`s initials over and over, chanting "ADO is our president!"