Former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo, who had been trying to cling to power from a bunker in his presidential compound, has been arrested by forces loyal to the country's recognized leader, Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo, holed up since last week in his compound in the administrative capital, Abidjan, was apprehended by Ouattara's soldiers Monday after French troops bombarded the compound overnight from helicopters and then choked off the area with nearly 30 armoured vehicles.

French Defence Minister Gérard Longuet denied his country's military was involved in the actual arrest, and the United Nations also issued a statement saying none of its peacekeepers took part. Commandant Issiaka Ouattara Watao of the pro-Ouattara Republican Force of Ivory Coast said French troops "didn't participate" in the capture.

Gbagbo, his wife Simone and son Michel were taken to the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Outtara's headquarters for the last several months, where television footage showed them being held captive in a fourth-floor room. Gbagbo asked for, and was granted, protection from UN police. 

"I hope that the fighting will stop and that we have entered the civil part of the crisis, and that it can be rapidly resolved so that the country can move on," the ex-president said in brief remarks.

In an address to the nation on TV and radio, 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. 

"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."

Ouattara also said he intended to establish a truth and reconciliation commission and called on all fighters to put down their arms.

Gbagbo's capture raised hopes that the West African country's deadly, drawn-out civil strife would end, but sporadic gunfire still echoed across Abidjan on Monday night and residents refrained from celebrating in public, still fearful of the hundreds of armed loyalists who continue to prowl the streets and refuse to believe their leader has been arrested.

French tanks tipped balance

Earlier in the day, French tanks advanced toward Gbagbo's bunker, the first time that forces from the former colonial ruler have become involved in the ground operation to oust him. About 30 military vehicles, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, left a French army base.

Only several hundred metres from Gbagbo's mansion, at least 10 armoured vehicles flying the French flag drove through the neighbourhood, sending pro-Gbagbo gunmen fleeing. Two tanks took up a position at a key intersection, while the others advanced toward Gbagbo's home.


Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, left, and his wife, Simone, sit in a room at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan after they were arrested Monday. The pair are being guarded by UN police. ((Reuters))

Issard Soumahro, a pro-Ouattara fighter at the scene, said the ground offensive to seize Gbagbo kicked in following a French aerial bombardment that lasted until at least 3 a.m. local time on Monday.

"We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker. He was there with his wife and his son. He wasn't hurt, but he was tired and his cheek was swollen from where a soldier had slapped him," Soumahro said.

Gbagbo emerged from his bunker in a white sleeveless undershirt. He then was interrogated and brought to the Golf Hotel. Officials were said to be waiting for him to sign a piece of paper formally handing power to Ouattara, Soumahro said.

'The nightmare is over'

"The nightmare is over for the people of Ivory Coast," said Youssoufou Bamba, Ivory Coast's UN ambassador.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the capture ends months of unnecessary conflict.

"This is an end of a chapter that should never have been," Ban said. "We have to help them to restore stability, rule of law, and address all humanitarian and security issues."

He said Gbagbo's "physical safety should be ensured and I'm going to urge that."

Bamba, who was appointed UN ambassador by Ouattara, said Gbagbo will face justice. He predicted that fighting that has wracked the former French colony will stop as soon as all of the pro-Gbagbo forces learn of his capture.


A soldier allied with Alassane Ouattara is given a handful of bullets for his new AK-47 after a shipment of weapons arrived at an operating base on the outskirts of Abidjan. ((Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press))

Some critics had accused Gbagbo of clinging to power in part to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has begun preliminary examination of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast, including accusations levelled against forces seeking to install Ouattara.

"We need to think about what his future should be," Ban said, adding that's up to Ouattara and his government.

Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war. The country was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. The long-delayed presidential election in November was intended to help reunify the nation but instead unleashed months of violence.

Gbagbo, who won 46 per cent of the vote, had held power for a decade and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the Nov. 28 election took place. When the country's election commission and international observers declared he lost the vote, he refused to step down.

The 65-year-old former history professor defied near-universal pressure to cede power to Ouattara. The two set up parallel administrations that vied for control of the West African economic powerhouse, the world's largest cocoa producer. Ouattara drew his support from the UN and world powers. Gbagbo maintained his hold over the country's military and security forces, calling efforts to oust him a foreign coup d'état.

Atrocities committed by both sides: group

Gbagbo has lost control of virtually the entire West African country over the last two weeks as forces loyal to internationally recognized winner Ouattara have swept down from the north and west into Abidjan.

Pro-Ouattara forces began an offensive late last month to install him in power, sweeping across the country in just days before meeting resistance in Abidjan.

"Everyone here is traumatized," said Philomene Houe, a 39-year-old soap maker in Duekoue, a town in the country's southwest, where hundreds have been killed in post-election violence. "We've all lost something — a member of the family, our homes, our belongings."

Human Rights Watch has accused the pro-Ouattara forces of killing hundreds of civilians, raping political opponents and burning villages during the offensive to try to put Ouattara in office.

"While the international community has been focused on the political stalemate over the presidency, forces on both sides have committed numerous atrocities against civilians, their leaders showing little interest in reining them in," said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch Africa director.

With files from The Associated Press