The breaking news right now is that Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo has been captured at his residence in Abidjan and handed over to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of a disputed presidential election in November, potentially ending a bloody and protracted power struggle.
There are conflicting reports, however, about whether French forces or Ouattara's forces arrested Gbagbo, and the answer matters. If the French captured Gbagbo, Ouattara could look weak as he prepares to assume power, especially given the belief among Gbagbo supporters that France--a former colonial power in the Ivory Coast--is engaging in neo-colonialism. Not surprisingly, then, it's Gbagbo's people who are claiming the French arrested their leader, and the French and Ouattara supporters who insist it was Ouattara's forces, with a French assist. The conflicting reports:
- Gbagbo adviser Toussaint Alain tells Reuters in Paris that "Gbagbo has been arrested by French special forces in his residence and has been handed over to the rebel leaders." The news agency, citing a Gbagbo adviser in Paris, reports that French tanks moved in on Gbagbo's compound following French and U.N. helicopter attacks.
- Gbagbo adviser Ahoua Don Mello claims the French military stormed Gbagbo's residence, according to CNN.
- France's ambassador to the Ivory Coast, Jean-Marc Simon, tells the AFP that Gbagbo was "arrested by the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast." AFP adds that witnesses "reported seeing pro-Ouattara forces entering Gbagbo's besieged residential compound, while French and UN armoured vehicles deployed on a road leading to the complex."
- In the same report in which it quotes Gbagbo advisers, Reuters cites a "French Foreign Ministry source" who says Gbagbo was arrested by "Ouattara's forces backed by the United Nations and French forces."
- Cmdr. Frederic Daguillon, a French military spokesman in Abidjan, affirms to the New York Times "categorically" that Ouattara's forces seized Gbagbo and that "there was not one single French soldier in the residence."
- The Associated Press quotes one pro-Ouattara fighter at the scene saying that the ground offensive to arrest Gbagbo began after the French launched airstrikes on Sunday night. "We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker," the fighter tells the AP.
- Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast’s Ambassador to France, tells BFM TV that Gbagbo was "arrested by Republican Forces, I insist on that."
- Laurent Teisseire, a spokesman for the French Defense Ministry, tells Bloomberg that French forces "helped" pro-Ouattara fighters in the operation but did not make the arrest.
Even if Ouattara's forces made the arrest, that may prove to be nothing more than a "detail," according to Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson. There's no question that French troops have been instrumental in ending the four-month long conflict in the Ivory Coast, she says, and that's problematic for Ouattara:
In this former French colony, resentment toward Paris runs high--a sentiment that Gbagbo became a master of channeling as man of the people. In his final days, he decried French influence in the crisis and said that the country's troops were trying to assasinate him. To his supporters, the pictures of French helicopters and tanks surrounding their leader's compound could transform Gbagbo into a martyr. The fear is that this could give a second wind to the fighters who have quit Gbagbo's side in recent days. Either way, Ouattara will have to work hard in his initial days to prove that he is not in bed with the Elysee.
The Ivorian television station TCI has footage of Gbagbo after his arrest (the photo above is a video grab)