Q&A: Ivory Coast crisis

The BBC's Allan Little looks at how Ivory Coast spiralled into civil war

Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo has been seized after a four-month stand-off with his rival, Alassane Ouattara, over last November's disputed election. The UN says Mr Ouattara won, but Mr Gbagbo refused to cede power and accused former colonial power France of trying to oust him.

What was the fighting about?

Power - Laurent Gbagbo had refused to step down even though the United Nations, which helped organise the November 2010 election, said he lost and Alassane Ouattara won.

Analysts say they have rarely, if ever, seen such unanimity in the international community - the African Union, the European Union, the UN and the West African regional body Ecowas all called on Mr Gbagbo to step down and imposed sanctions to force him out.

Mr Gbagbo says the polls in northern areas under the control of pro-Ouattara forces were rigged but the UN says there was no evidence of this.

The AU gave Mr Gbagbo until 24 March to step down but nothing happened.

A few days later, pro-Ouattara forces swept down from their northern strongholds in a relentless march towards the seat of power in Abidjan.

After days of fighting around the city centre, UN and French troops launched air strikes against pro-Gbagbo positions, saying they were trying to destroy heavy weapons which had been used against civilians areas and UN headquarters.

Who arrested him?

Everybody concerned stresses that he was captured by Mr Ouattara's forces.

But the French played a big role and it was initially said they had seized him.

It is a very important question because Mr Gbagbo has always argued that France, the former colonial power, was trying to oust him because he was standing up for the economic interests of the world's largest cocoa producer and was using its influence in the UN to do so.

If French forces had seized him, that would have bolstered Mr Gbagbo's argument that he was the victim of a neo-colonial plot.

But in any case, French and UN military power played a decisive role in bombing the presidential residence where he was staying and they also played a part in the advance on the ground.

How serious has the fighting been?

At least 1,500 people are thought to have died - including 500 before the advance on Abidjan and several hundred in a massacre in the western town of Duekoue.

The casualties in the latest fighting in Abidjan are not yet known, but scores of bodies have been seen lying on the streets.

Apart from around Duekoue, the advance of the pro-Ouattara forces was so quick that it suggests they met little resistance, although grim details may yet emerge from remote areas.

During the political stand-off there were bloody clashes and targeted killings in Abidjan.

The UN has accused pro-Gbagbo security forces of firing shells into residential areas seen as supporting Mr Ouattara.

A pro-Ouattara group has also emerged in Abidjan, which has been accused of killing Gbagbo supporters.

At least a million people have fled their homes, according to the UN.

Many have little access to food and shelter and are living in desperate circumstances.

What happens next?

Ivory Coast: Battle for power

  • At least 1,500 killed, one million fled since disputed election
  • 9,000 UN peacekeepers monitor 2003 ceasefire
  • World's largest cocoa producer
  • Once haven of peace and prosperity in West Africa
  • Alassane Ouattara recognised as president-elect
  • International sanctions imposed to force Laurent Gbagbo to go

Mr Ouattara has always said he wanted to capture Mr Gbagbo alive so he can face justice. The International Criminal Court has talked about investigating possible crimes against humanity.

But thousands of Gbagbo supporters have been given weapons and could cause a lot of trouble in Abidjan, especially if they can whip up anti-French sentiment.

Putting him on a plane to The Hague could fuel uproar and it might be deemed more prudent to send him into exile.

He has always been a close ally of Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and so would probably find a safe haven there.

South Africa has also been mentioned as somewhere he could enjoy asylum.

What is the background to all this?

A decade ago, Ivory Coast was seen as a haven of peace and prosperity in West Africa.

But under the surface, the country has long been deeply divided along ethnic, religious and economic lines.

Its thriving cocoa industry meant living standards in Ivory Coast were far higher than its neighbours, so people from some of the world's poorest countries, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, moved there to earn their living.

Some of these people shared ethnic ties to those living in northern Ivory Coast and, like them, were mostly Muslim.

Some southerners, egged on by populist politicians including Mr Gbagbo, started to resent the influx and demanded action to protect the country's "Ivoirite (Ivorian-ness)".

They portrayed northerners as not being real Ivorians.

How did the northerners react?

The northerners then started to complain that they were being discriminated against.

For example, Mr Ouattara, a Muslim, was banned from standing for president in previous elections because it was said his parents came from Burkina Faso. He had already served as the country's prime minister.

Similarly, many northerners said they were being refused national identity cards and the right to vote.

In 2002, some northern soldiers mutinied and marched on Abidjan. They were on the verge of seizing the whole country when they were stopped by French troops and some 9,000 UN peacekeepers deployed.

The country was then divided into north and south - a split the elections were supposed to end.

Instead they hardened the divisions and now that he is in charge, Mr Ouattara will have a huge job to reconcile the whole country.

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