By Loucoumane Coulibaly
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast will send Charles Ble Goude, a close ally of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo, to the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity, the justice minister said on Thursday.
The ICC, based in The Hague, Netherlands, said in October it had issued an arrest warrant for Ble Goude, who headed the Young Patriots street militia during Gbagbo's presidency, for his alleged role in violence after a disputed 2010 general election.
"The cabinet has agreed to send Ble Goude to the International Criminal Court," minister Gnenema Mamadou Coulibaly told reporters. "We are going to study how to quickly execute this decision."
In a statement, the ICC said it would work with Ivory Coast's government to arrange Ble Goude's transfer to the court's detention centre.
"The ICC welcomes the decision of the Ivorian authorities, and is ready to move forward with proceedings against him as soon as he is transferred, since an arrest warrant against him has been pending since 2011 for alleged crimes against humanity," the court added.
Ble Goude had previously asked to be tried by an Ivorian court and not sent to The Hague. Nick Kaufman, Ble Goude's defense lawyer before the ICC, said the Ivorian government's approach to justice was arbitrary and politically motivated.
"The only rational explanation is that the government continues to be concerned about the popular appeal of Charles Ble Goude and continues to deny his central and essential role in peace and reconciliation in Cote d'Ivoire," he said.
He added Ble Goude would consider all options, including filing an admissibility challenge.
Gbagbo, who refused to give up power after losing a presidential runoff in 2010, has been in the ICC's custody since November 2011, accused of responsibility for rapes, murders, persecution and inhuman acts.
Some African governments say the ICC unfairly targets the continent.
Despite the marginalization of his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), 41-year-old Ble Goude, known as "Street General", still commands a large youth following in Ivory Coast.
Photographs published last week that local papers claim show a gaunt-looking Ble Goude in a spartan prison cell prompted criticism of the government.
The government said the pictures were fake and issued other photos, including one showing a man they said was Ble Goude sitting serenely in front of a television.
The FPI declined to give an immediate comment on his transfer.
Control Risks analyst Christoph Wille said that the decision to transfer Ble Goude could provoke tensions, but the potential for major unrest in French-speaking West Africa's largest economy was highly doubtful.
He added that the decision to transfer Ble Goude could open the way for further prosecutions.
"I think there will be a lot of pressure on the ICC to issue arrest warrants for other individuals, including from (President Alassane) Ouattara's camp. Presumably, investigations have already been launched against some of them," he said.
The ICC also has an arrest warrant out for Gbagbo's wife Simone for charges of crimes against humanity. However Ouattara's government said in September that it planned to try the former first lady, currently under house arrest in Ivory Coast, in a domestic court.
(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly and Thomas Escritt; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Geert De Clercq; Editing by Emma Farge and Ruth Pitchford)