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Ivory Coast strongman arrested after French forces intervene

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UNITED NATIONS — Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo was arrested Monday by French-backed forces of President-elect Alassane Ouattara, raising hopes for an imminent end to the strife that has racked the West African country since Gbagbo refused to acknowledge his defeat in a November presidential election.

After an attack on Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital, by French forces earlier Monday, troops loyal to Ouattara went in and seized Gbagbo, according to U.N., French and Ivorian officials.

Initial reports indicated that French troops had captured Gbagbo (pronounced Bagbo) and turned him over to Ouattara’s forces. But Ouattara’s U.N. envoy subsequently told reporters that the arrest had been carried out by forces loyal to the president-elect.

“I am clear about that,” the envoy, Youssoufou Bamba, told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council. “That’s the Republican Forces of Cote d’Ivoire who have conducted the operation. Gbagbo is arrested. He is under our custody. . . . Right now, he is being brought to a safe location for the next course of action.”

Television footage showed a be­draggled-looking Gbabgo wearing an undershirt and being led away by soldiers. He was later photographed with his wife at the Golf Hotel, where they were taken after their capture.

Gbagbo refused to formally cede power to Ouattara, according to news ser­vices.

In Washington, President Obama welcomed the end of Gbagbo’s “illegitimate claim to power,” commended the actions of U.N. and French forces in Ivory Coast and called on Ouattara to begin “the hard work of reconciliation and rebuilding.”

Ouattara, 69, an economist with advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, won 54 percent of the vote in an election in November, according to the country’s official election commission. But Gbagbo maneuvered to have votes from some pro-Ouattara areas nullified and claimed victory with 51 percent of the remaining vote.

Both men took oaths of office, but the international community largely recognized Ouattara as the legitimate new president. Gbagbo refused, however, to leave office.

On Monday, after briefing the Security Council on developments in Ivory Coast, U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters that Gbagbo and his wife were in the custody of Ouattara’s forces but that U.N. peacekeepers took responsibility for “ensuring the couple’s personal security.”

Le Roy said he understands that Ouattara might want to prosecute Gbagbo. “Of course, it’s his call,” he said.

Bamba, Ouattara’s U.N. envoy, said he was confident that as “the news will spread” of Gbagbo’s arrest, his forces “will stop fighting and they will lay down their weapons.”

He added: “Those fighting are fighting for nothing, because this man is over, this era is over. We will address the serious problem of the humanitarian situation and the security situation . . . and restore public order.”

But diplomats warned that the situation on the ground remained dangerous and that the crisis was not yet over.

Gbagbo’s supporters responded to his arrest by dismissing claims that the operation was carried out by Ouattara’s forces and noting that French and U.N. attack helicopters had pounded the presidential palace and Gbagbo’s residence.

Zakaria Fellah, a Gbagbo loyalist and adviser, said the manner in which Gbagbo was deposed will leave a legacy of deep resentment among his supporters, who will view this as another example of the former colonial power, France, using superior firepower to decide who will rule the country.

“The so-called regime of Ouattara’s forces were completely absent,” he said.

In his statement, Obama said Gbagbo’s arrest “represents a victory for the democratic will of the Ivoirian people, who have suffered for far too long through the instability that followed their election.”

Obama added: “President Ouattara will need to govern on behalf of all the people of Cote d’Ivoire, including those who did not vote for him.”

Gbagbo’s forces had been accused of targeting civilians over the past few weeks, but Ouattara’s loyalists have also allegedly carried out abuses. Among other abuses, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have cited evidence that Ouattara’s forces committed reprisal killings of suspected Gbagbo supporters.

Branigin reported from Washington. Correspondent Edward Cody in Paris contributed to this report.

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