ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Ivory Coast has issued passports to former president Laurent Gbagbo, allowing him to return from exile in Belgium before the end of the year following his acquittal on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court, his lawyer said on Friday.
Gbagbo welcomed the move as a conciliatory gesture from President Alassane Ouattara, whose bitter standoff with opponents over his election for a third term has called into question the West African nation’s hard-won stability.
Gbago has not said what he plans to do on his return, but his presence in Ivory Coast could energise opposition factions after their failure to derail October’s vote through a boycott.
Gbagbo, who served as president from 2000 until his arrest in 2011 at the end of a brief civil war caused by his refusal to concede electoral defeat to Ouattara, had hoped to challenge Ouattara again at the ballot box.
But he was not granted a passport to return from Europe and his candidacy was barred by the authorities, who cited a criminal conviction in Ivorian court for misappropriating funds from the central bank during the war.
On Friday, he received a diplomatic and a regular passport in Brussels and will return to Ivory Coast before the end of the year, his lawyer, Habiba Toure, said in a statement.
Gbagbo “welcomes the move by the Ivorian authorities, which he sees as being in the spirit of appeasement”, she said.
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Ouattara to extend an olive branch to opponents including Gbagbo to ease tensions.
Gbagbo faced trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes related to the civil war, which killed 3,000 people. He was acquitted in January 2019, but the prosecution is appealing against the verdict.
He and other opposition leaders contested Ouattara’s right to run for a third term this year. The dispute led to clashes that killed 85 people before and after the election and the arrest of opposition figures.
(Reporting by Ange Aboa; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Aaron Ross and Alison Williams)