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Gbagbo grilled over I Coast unrest

KORHOGO, May 6 – Investigators grilled fallen leader Laurent Gbagbo for the first time Friday about post-election violence which engulfed Ivory Coast, as his rival prepared to be sworn in as president.

Nearly a month after his arrest in his presidential residence in Abidjan, Gbagbo was being questioned by the state prosecutor in the northern city of Korhogo where he is now being kept under house arrest — but without the help of a team of French lawyers who were turned back at the airport.

Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo\’s opponent in November\’s disputed election, is determined that his rival will face justice over the wave of violence which ripped through the west African nation, leaving around 3,000 people dead.

Ouattara, who was regarded by the international community as the winner of the runoff poll, is due to finally take the oath of office on Friday at a ceremony beginning around 1600 GMT in the country\’s biggest city, Abidjan.

The fighting between the followers of Gbagbo and Ouattara had prompted fears of a return to the all-out civil war which effectively led to a north-south divide in the former French colony at the last decade.

Two prominent French lawyers, Jacques Verges and Marcel Ceccaldi, were hoping to represent Gbagbo during the questioning on Friday but they were denied entry to Ivory Coast on Friday morning as they landed at Abidjan.

The pair were escorted to the departures area where they were to take the next flight to Paris, at 9:40 am (0940 GMT), according to an AFP correspondent.

A third member of the defence team, the Franco-Cameroonian lawyer Lucie Bourthoumieux, was able to pass through passport control as she had rights of residence, but she also decided to fly back with her colleagues to Paris.

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Verges said it was clear that the new authorities in charge of Ivory Coast did not want the former president to receive a proper defence.

"I am very pessimistic about the future of a regime which treats lawyers in such a way," Verges said.

Gbagbo was arrested on April 11 with his wife and roughly 100 loyalists following a raid on his residence in Abidjan by pro-Ouattara forces.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said earlier this week that he would soon ask for authorisation to launch a formal investigation into crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast.

"If the chamber authorises that we can start the investigation, we can go to Ivory Coast and collect evidence," Moreno-Ocampo told AFP.

Although Gbagbo has not spoken publicly since his arrest, he was allowed a meeting on Monday in Korhogo with a delegation comprising South Africa\’s Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former Irish president and UN human rights chief Mary Robinson.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Tutu said that Gbagbo wanted to see the country "return to a normal situation."

"(Gbagbo) said that he had to heal the wounds of the country," Tutu said, adding that the former president "appears in good health."

Although the situation has quietened down since Gbagbo\’s capture, sporadic clashes continue to break out and the authorities are still finding mass graves both in parts of Abidjan and other areas of the country.

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The bodies of 60 people killed in recent fighting between government forces and pro-Gbagbo militiamen were retrieved on Tuesday in the Abidjan district of Yopougon, the Ivorian Red Cross said Wednesday.

Several hundred militiamen are believed to still be active in the district.


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