ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo was captured and placed under the control of his presidential rival Monday after French troops closed in on the besieged compound where he had been holed up for the past week.
A column of more than 30 French armored vehicles moved in on Gbagbo's residence in Abidjan after French and U.N. helicopter gunships attacked the compound overnight to end a drawn-out standoff that had reignited a civil war.
Witnesses said Alassane Ouattara's forces, who had failed to dislodge Gbagbo despite mounting a fierce attack on his bunker last week, had joined French troops advancing on the compound.
Gbagbo refused to step down after November's presidential election, won by Ouattara according to results certified by the United Nations. The violence since has claimed more than 1,000 lives and uprooted a million people.
"Yes, he has been arrested," Affoussy Bamba, a spokeswoman for Ouattara, told Reuters.
Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said he had left his bunker and surrendered to the French, offering no resistance.
The former colonial power said the arrest had been carried out by Ouattara's forces backed by the U.N. and the French military. Ouattara confirmed that version in a speech broadcast on his TCI television.
"Just after 3 o'clock, ex-president Laurent Gbagbo handed himself over to the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast. At no moment did French forces enter either the garden or the residence of Gbagbo," French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
Gbagbo's arrest marked the end of his 10 years in power in the world's leading cocoa-growing nation.
While Ouattara will finally assume the presidency he has claimed since the disputed election, he will still have to confront longstanding ethnic divisions, years of economic stagnation and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Gbagbo's arrest may not be enough to draw a line under the conflict. "Ouattara has to play this very carefully, to manage tensions at home and placate the domestic constituents of Gbagbo and so resolve not just the electoral dispute but also in effect a 10-year-long civil war," said Mark Schroeder, an analyst with political risk consultancy Stratfor.
Gbagbo was taken to the Hotel Golf in Abidjan, where his rival has his headquarters.
Ouattara's TCI television showed Gbagbo in a room at the Golf, Ouattara's troops standing by him. Wearing a white undershirt, he looked in good health but submissive. He was given a towel and a green shirt, which he put on in front of the camera.
Gbagbo's wife Simone, believed by many Ivorians to possess
powers of witchcraft, was with him at the hotel.
Gbagbo later made a brief appearance on the television station, calling for an end to fighting.
U.N. officials said he would be moved within the next few hours to a secure location in the north. Ouattara's U.N. envoy Youssoufou Bamba declined to give details. "He won't be spending the night in the Hotel Golf," he told Reuters.
In his own speech, Ouattara said all measures had been taken to ensure Gbagbo's and his wife's physical security.
He said he would establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate accusations of atrocities against civilians by both sides in the conflict. He also called for calm and urged militias to disarm.
"Our country has turned a painful page in its history," Ouattara said.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the head of Gbagbo's forces had called to say that he was ready to lay down his weapons. A French military source said 200 members of Gbagbo's Republican Guard had given themselves up by midday.
"The nightmare has ended," Ouattara's Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said, while Ouattara's ambassador to the United Nations said Gbagbo would be "brought to justice."
Shortly after the news broke of Gbagbo's arrest, Nicolas Sarkozy's office said the French president had just had a long telephone conversation with Ouattara.
France, which has more than 1,600 troops in its former colony, took a lead role in efforts to persuade Gbagbo to stand down, infuriating his supporters who accuse Paris of neo-colonialism.
Celebrations erupted as news of the arrest spread in the commercial capital, where people have been trapped by fighting for 10 days, and food and water are running low.
"Let's hope the country can find peace and stability. I'm very happy," said Jean Desire Aitcheou.
"A big thank you to France for having liberated us," said Fidi Ouattara (no relation to the presidential claimant).
Earlier Monday, some Gbagbo supporters around Cocody district, where his residence is located, tried to halt the French armored vehicles, kneeling in front of them praying, but were quickly dispersed when a new round of firing began.
Ouattara's ability to unify the West African country may be undermined by reports of atrocities against civilians since his forces charged into Abidjan.
Ouattara's camp denies involvement, but a report by Human Rights Watch said his forces had killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 women and girls said to belong to Gbagbo's camp and burned at least 10 villages in western Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo's fighters are also accused of massacres.
The arrest of Gbagbo and the lifting of European Union sanctions on the two main ports mean it may be possible to resume cocoa exports by next week.
Cocoa prices, which had earlier risen sharply on reports of fighting, fell back when Gbagbo's arrest was announced.
Ivory Coast's $2.3 billion bond rallied more than half a point Monday, reversing earlier 3-point losses, after Gbagbo was arrested.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Vicky Buffery and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Bate Felix and Silvia Aloisi in Dakar; Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Tim Pearce)