ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The strongman of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, was captured and taken into custody by his rival Monday, ending a four-month standoff that left hundreds dead in this once-prosperous West African nation, put international diplomacy to a severe test, and ultimately dragged the country back into civil war.
With French helicopters hovering in the skies nearby, Gbagbo surrendered to his rival’s forces as they stormed his residence, sending his chief of staff outside to signal his defeat.
“The fighting is over,” Gbagbo said on his rival’s television station after his arrest. “So he went out with a white handkerchief. The fighting is over.”
For months, African diplomats and heads of state had shuttled back and forth to Abidjan, pleading with Gbagbo to step down after losing a presidential election last year. The United Nations, the United States, and the European Union demanded his resignation, imposing severe economic sanctions that crippled the economy — but failed to push Gbagbo from power.
Instead, it took devastating airstrikes by French and U.N. helicopters to help end Gbagbo’s gamble to defy the international community, fight off his rival, Alassane Ouattara, and extend his rule.
On Sunday night and into Monday morning, the helicopters pounded the presidential offices and the palatial residence where Gbagbo had been holed up with his wife underground for days, firing missile blasts that were officially aimed at destroying the heavy weapons outside, but also reduced parts of Gbagbo’s last redoubts to smoking rubble.
U.N. and French officials, wary of being seen as exceeding their mandate by enforcing regime change, insisted that their actions were solely intended to protect civilians, entirely independent of the final push to capture Gbagbo by his rival’s forces.
“There was not one single French soldier in the residence,” said Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, a French military spokesman in Abidjan.
But they readily acknowledged that the international strikes had broken Gbagbo’s defenses, leaving him open to capture.
Alain Le Roy, head of the U.N. peacekeeping operations, said the strike on Gbagbo’s heavy weapons may have helped clear the way for Gbagbo’s rivals to storm the residence. But he stressed that there had been no coordination between U.N. forces and those of Ouattara’s and that the United Nations’ aim had been wholly geared toward protecting civilians.