World leaders began arriving in Ivory Coast’s administrative capital Saturday for the presidential inauguration, a ceremony that will mark the return of constitutional order and the end of a political standoff that nearly dragged the country into civil war. The stately ceremony should have taken place six months ago after Alassane Ouattara won November’s presidential election. He was prevented from taking office by outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to accept his defeat and who used the army to prevent Ouattara from leaving the hotel that had served as his campaign headquarters. Ouattara was forced to take the oath of office in a ceremony last December inside the hotel lobby attended only by his closest aides.
Saturday’s inauguration in Yamoussoukro is to be attended by some 20 heads of state, in a dramatic turnaround underscoring the broad international support he enjoys after an electoral victory that was certified by the United Nations. It also symbolizes the end of a political saga that claimed hundreds of lives. Bodies still clog the wells of towns in Ivory Coast’s troubled west, where forces loyal to the two men waged a bloody battle for power. U.N. helicopters zoomed overhead, ferrying presidents and prime ministers from the international airport in Abidjan, the commercial capital. French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived by special flight from Paris Saturday, while Chadian President Idriss Deby was spotted checking into his hotel.
The normally sleepy boulevards of Yamoussoukro , a city of 300,000 people, were choked with cars. Tens of thousands of Ouattara’s supporters poured in overnight, most of them finding nowhere to sleep but the sidewalk. ”I wanted to see this day,” said 24-year-old Daho Barke, who slept outside after driving in from Abidjan, the center of government where some of the worst fighting took place. “It’s more than a dream to finally see this day come true. We suffered so much to get here.” Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, after French forces led an air raid on the presidential compound where he had locked himself inside a bunker. He and the former first lady are under house arrest awaiting trial, as are many of his ministers and advisers.
Going forward, it’s unclear how Ouattara will handle allegations of abuse by his forces. After more than four months of diplomatic efforts to remove Gbagbo, Ouattara enlisted the help of a former rebel group based in the country’s north. The pro-Ouattara fighters who streamed in from the north, east, and west and are accused of carrying out horrific massacres in villages known to have supported Gbagbo. The U.N. estimates that over 300 people were killed in the town of Duekoue alone. Aid workers say bodies were thrown in wells and are rotting inside, where no one can reach them. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was one of the mediators appointed by the African Union to try to convince Gbagbo to relinquish power, urged Ouattara to focus on unifying the Ivory Coast. ”This is not the time for acrimony or retribution,” Odinga said at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, as he departed for the Ivory Coast Friday.
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