Sarkozy, Ban on hand as Ivory Coast inaugurates Ouattara

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Foreign leaders including the French president and the UN chief gathered in Ivory Coast's capital Yamoussoukro on Saturday for the long-delayed inauguration of Alassane Ouattara as president of the troubled nation.

The event comes nearly six months after Ouattara won presidential elections but could not take office as outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat, sparking a conflict that was to claim nearly 3,000 lives.

"It is important to be here in Ivory Coast alongside President Ouattara, for democracy, for Africa," said President Nicolas Sarkozy of former colonial power France as he arrived early Saturday.

Ouattara replied: "You see, everyone said 'thank you, Sarko'," referring to youths who greeted the French leader.

Billed as a "rally" -- Ouattara has already taken the oath of office -- the ceremony was to begin at 10:30 am (1030 GMT) in Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of Ivory Coast's late founding father Felix Houphouet-Boigny, whom Ouattara served as prime minister in the early 1990s.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was also on hand for the ceremony, along with African presidents including Blaise Compaore of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Ali Bongo of Gabon, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, former mediator of the Ivorian crisis, and Jean Ping, chief administrator of the African Union, were also expected.

Gbagbo, after 10 years in power over an already divided country, refused to step down even though an electoral commission, African peers and much of the international community recognised Ouattara as the legitimate victor of the November 28 polls.

Yamoussoukro, a largely ceremonial capital, has undergone a facelift and has been festooned with the national colours, while the venue, the Houphouet-Boigny Foundation, is under tight security provided by the army and UN peacekeepers.

Ouattara, 69, took power after Gbagbo's April 11 arrest following two weeks of fighting between troops who remained loyal to the former head of state and Ouattara's forces, who were backed by UN and French troops.

Officially proclaimed president on May 5 by the head of the Constitutional Council, Yao N'Dre, Ouattara took the oath of office the next day.

Yao N'Dre, who is close to Gbagbo, was the man who on December 3 proclaimed the outgoing president re-elected with 51 percent of the votes, undermining results announced by the electoral commission, which gave Ouattara 54 percent.

Since April 11, the world's top cocoa producer has slowly been pulling itself out of political and economic crisis. Civil servants have gone back to work, schools have opened again, the forces of law and order are going about their tasks, and businesses have resumed activity. But the country remains scarred by violence and looting in the past few months.

While the new president has promised reconciliation, notably by setting up an ad hoc commission to tackle the issues, he has also pledged to bring to trial those responsible for crimes committed since the November 28 election, whoever they may be.

International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he intends to investigate massacres by both sides in a conflict which raised fears of a Rwanda-style genocide.

Gbagbo, his wife Simone and many members of the former regime have been arrested and consigned to house arrest in different towns of the country, in line with an inquiry being carried out by Ivorian prosecutors.

The new head of state is expected to form a new government shortly, and legislative elections must be held before the end of the year.

© 2011 AFP

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