Police fire teargas as crowds mass to welcome back Ivory Coast's Gbagbo
BRUSSELS, June 17 (Reuters) - Police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of supporters of Ivory Coast's ousted president Laurent Gbagbo as crowds massed to welcome him home on Thursday from 10 years of exile.
One group chanted "Gbagbo is coming, we will install him," while others shouted "Respect the power of Gbagbo" from mini-vans heading towards the airport in the commercial capital Abidjan.
Gbagbo, wearing a white shirt and a face mask, waved as he boarded a plane back to Ivory Coast in Brussels as a small group of supporters applauded, videos shared on social media sites showed.
He was ousted from power in 2011, sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face war crimes charges, and acquitted eight years later.
The 76-year-old's return comes after protracted negotiations between his camp and the government, which delayed granting him a passport until after 2020 elections.
Gbagbo has said little about what political role he might play back home. He retains firm support among his base of supporters, particularly in the south and west.
There was a heavy police presence in Abidjan to head off any violence, even as President Alassane Ouattara's government and Gbagbo's supporters say they hope his return can help reconcile the country.
In the city's Yopougon district, considered Gbangbo's political stronghold, hundreds took to the streets to demonstrate in support of his arrival. Police fired teargas in other neighbourhoods to disperse similar crowds.
"It's a great day for me to go and welcome Gbagbo," said Liliane Kokora, who wore a t-shirt with Gbagbo's face printed on it. "He is finally arriving in his country to give us hope."
Gbagbo, who came to office in 2000, was arrested after a brief civil war prompted by his refusal to concede defeat to Ouattara in the 2010 election. More than 3,000 people were killed in the conflict, which was fought largely along ethnic and regional lines.
He was acquitted at the International Criminal Court in 2019 of charges that he had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the violence.
Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, has experienced rapid economic growth over the last decade but continues to experience occasional bouts of political and ethnic unrest.
After Gbagbo announced the date of his return, the government initially complained that it had not been consulted, but later said he would be welcomed back in the interest of national reconciliation.
Gbagbo also faces an outstanding 20-year prison sentence that was handed down in November 2019 on charges he misappropriated funds from the regional central bank.
Ouattara said in April that Gbagbo was free to return, but the government has not said whether he has been pardoned.
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