French step back in Gbagbo capture

By Daniel Howden, John Lichfield

Was the "arresting officer" French or Ivorian?

Supporters of veteran Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo were keen yesterday to propagate the legend that their hero was forced to give up office by French special forces. Paris was equally determined to rubbish this claim and insist no French soldier entered the presidential residence.

Gbagbo's supporters will try to keep his myth - and the civil war - alive by saying he was toppled by the wicked ex-colonial power.

A bewildered old man in a hotel room, stripped to his vest and surrounded by strangers. These were the first pictures that emerged of Gbagbo after he was forced blinking into the light yesterday by a thunderous French assault on his Abidjan bunker that ended with him being handed over to his nemesis, Alassane Ouattara.

It is clear that it was the French military which finally swayed the battle for Abidjan in favour of the forces loyal to Ouattara.

A UN resolution gave the 1600-strong French peacekeeping force the right to intervene to prevent civilian casualties. This right has been interpreted more and more broadly in the past week until, finally, French helicopters and artillery began to pound the forces defending Gbagbo's bunker.

France can argue that the best way to save civilians in Abidjan from further harm was to take out Gbagbo. But Paris had hoped, in truth, not to have been so overtly involved in the defeat of the ex-president.

In theory, France was "neutral" in last November's election and supported Ouattara's claim only because independent observers declared him the narrow winner. In reality, France has favoured Ouattara from the beginning. The new Ivorian President is an old friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Paris lost patience with Gbagbo years ago.

All the more reason, therefore, for Paris to have preferred a "clean" defeat for the Gbagbo forces with fewer French fingerprints on Ouattara's victory. The manner of his ousting, will further complicate hopes of rebuilding a fractured country.

News of Gbagbo's capture crackled across Abidjan, which has been transformed into a looted wasteland by the 65-year-old's refusal to cede power. Gbagbo made the humiliating journey of 3km to the Golf Hotel where he had previously besieged Ouattara. The reversal of fortunes was total.

- INDEPENDENT

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