Ex-president Laurent Gbagbo left Ivory Coast on Tuesday for The Hague-based International Criminal Court which is probing alleged crimes committed during post-election violence.
Gbagbo, who will be the first former head of state to be surrendered to the ICC, left shortly after 6 pm (1800 GMT) from the northern town of Korhogo, Abidjan prosecutor Simplice Kouadio Koffi told AFP.
A source close to the matter told AFP that Gbagbo’s plane would fly to Abidjan and then on to the Netherlands where it was expected to arrive overnight in Rotterdam, where he will be handed over to ICC authorities.
One of Gbagbo’s lawyers, Jean Gbougnon, earlier told AFP: « The prosecutor has served an international arrest warrant on … Laurent Gbagbo ».
Gbagbo, 66, was informed of his imminent transfer to the ICC earlier Tuesday, less than two weeks before legislative elections set for December 11.
Last month, ICC judges gave prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo the green light to probe post-election war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by forces loyal to both Gbagbo and new Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
In Paris, another lawyer for Gbagbo called the ICC arrest warrant « illegal » and said it would only serve to excerbate tensions in the west African country right before the elections.
« This decision by the International Criminal Court is illegal and goes against the interests of the country and of national reconcilation, » said lawyer Lucie Bourthoumieux.
Ivory Coast’s new rulers have been pressing for weeks to have Gbagbo transferred to The Hague, at times making his detention at ICC headquarters a condition for « reconciliation » in the deeply divided country.
And the United States said Tuesday the ex-leader must be held accountable for « impeding the peaceful transition to democracy » in Ivory Coast by refusing to concede defeat in last year’s presidential election.
« He now needs to be held accountable for any human rights abuses that he may have carried out, » State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.
« I think any credible, transparent trial that holds him accountable for his actions can certainly be constructive in reconciliation efforts, » Toner added.
In Ivory Coast, Gbagbo had appeared on Monday before an investigating magistrate in Korhogo, where he has been detained following his arrest in Abidjan on April 11, Gbougnon said.
The former leader faces charges on home soil for « economic crimes », allegedly committed during the political crisis that was triggered by his refusal to hand over power, leaving some 3,000 people dead.
Gbagbo’s wife Simone is detained at Odienne in the northwest of Ivory Coast, while dozens of his followers and close military and civilian aides are being held for assault, « violating the authority of the state » or economic crimes.
Among them are former prime minister Gilbert Ake N’Gbo and several former ministers; Gbagbo’s son Michel Gbagbo, who has dual French and Ivorian nationality; the head of the former ruling party the Ivorian Popular Front, Pascal Affi N’Guessan; and several senior members of the former state security agencies.
Fadi el-Abdallah, a spokesman for the ICC, the first permanent international court charged to pursue war crimes and crimes against humanity, told AFP Tuesday the court could not comment on the matter until judges made their decision public.
During a visit to Abidjan on October 15, Moreno-Ocampo promised that his investigation would be « impartial » and said he would focus on three to six people who share the biggest responsibilities in the post-election crisis.