A plane believed to be carrying former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo landed early Wednesday in the Netherlands ahead of his transfer to the International Criminal Court.
The Ivorian plane arrived at Rotterdam The Hague Airport shortly before 4 a.m. (0300 GMT) and taxied to a hangar where it was met by a convoy of black cars.
The international court did not immediately confirm that Gbagbo was on the plane. But its arrival at the airport close to the outskirts of The Hague and the waiting fleet of cars was similar to the procedure followed when other high-profile suspects such as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic were transferred to other international tribunals in The Hague.
No details have been released of the charges faced by Gbagbo, but the court's investigation focused on violence that erupted after he refused to accept defeat in last year's presidential election and nearly plunged Ivory Coast into civil war.
The ICC was not expected to make any announcement until later Wednesday after Gbagbo arrives in their detention unit in The Hague.
Gbagbo is the first former head of state to be taken into custody by the ICC since its founding in 2002. Milosevic and former Liberian President Charles Taylor also were put on trial in The Hague, but before separate ad hoc tribunals.
Gbagbo had been under house arrest in the tiny village of Korhogo over 300 miles (500 kilometers) north of Abidjan since being ousted by internationally backed forces seven months ago.
In Abidjan, Gbagbo's spokesman Kone Katinan confirmed that the former ruler had left the remote village on a special flight to the Netherlands. The public prosecutor's office in Ivory Coast said Gbagbo changed planes in Bouake, the regional capital, before continuing to the Netherlands.
The former president's transfer, which comes almost exactly a year to the day after Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election, was applauded by victims of Gbagbo's regime and by human rights groups.
However, the move could further stoke tension in Ivory Coast because it gives the appearance of victor's justice, since grave abuses were also committed by forces loyal to the country's democratically elected leader, Alassane Ouattara, who enlisted the help of a former rebel group to force Gbagbo from office.
Leaders of Gbagbo's party, whose members are either under house arrest or in exile, condemned the extradition.
"It's an injustice to judge him alone without judging (Guillaume) Soro," said party spokesman Augustin Guehoun, naming the country's defense minister who headed the armed group that invaded the country in order to install Ouattara.
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented how the advancing army set fire to villages that voted for Gbagbo, and executed those that could not run away, including the elderly and the disabled, by rolling them inside mattresses and then setting them on fire.
"He is not the only one responsible (for the human rights abuses committed during the post election period)," said 30-year-old Kossonou Agingra. "There were partisans of Alassane (Ouattara) who killed _ and partisans of Gbagbo who killed."
The 66-year-old Gbagbo, a history professor, came to power in a flawed election in 2000. He then failed to hold elections when his first five-year term expired in 2005, and rescheduled the vote a half-dozen times before it finally went ahead in 2010.
As soon as it became clear that Ouattara was leading in the polls, Gbagbo's presidential guard surrounded the election commission, preventing the results from being announced.
The killings began as soon as the United Nations declared Ouattara the winner, and for the next four months morgues overflowed as the military under Gbagbo's control executed opponents, gunned down protesters and shelled neighborhoods.
The turning point came in March when thousands of unarmed women led a demonstration demanding Gbagbo's departure. Tanks opened fire with 50-caliber bullets and the horrific scene that followed was caught on camera phones, and led to condemnation by governments around the world.
The United Nations helped by French forces began air strikes soon after, clearing the path for Ouattara's soldiers to enter the city, where they seized Gbagbo inside his bunker.
"Today is a big day for the victims of crimes committed during Ivory Coast's horrific postelection violence," Elise Keppler, senior counsel to Human Rights Watch said in an email.
"While the Gbagbo camp fueled the violence through its refusal to relinquish power and its incitement, forces on both sides have been repeatedly implicated in grave crimes," she said. "The many victims of abuse meted out by forces loyal to President Ouattara also deserve to see justice done."
The spokesman for Ouattara's government Kone Bruno said he did not believe the pending indictment could destabilize the nation, which is still plagued by pockets of violence between the two camps. He added that the international court will likely be more impartial than an Ivory Coast court. "If a judgment were made in Ivory Coast, it wouldn't be objective," he said.
In the Netherlands, Gbagbo is likely to be better treated than he has been at home. His Paris-based lawyer Emmanuel Altit said that while under house arrest in Korhogo Gbagbo was kept incommunicado and prohibited from going outside.
A confidential United Nations document leaked to The Associated Press on Tuesday states that Gbagbo's health "seems to be deteriorating." He was having "trouble standing up," as of Nov. 23.
In The Hague, Gbagbo will likely be held in the same North Sea-facing complex that also houses ex-Liberian warlord Taylor and Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba. Inmates have TVs, access to the internet and a choice of books to read, as well as regular contact with their attorneys.
Associated Press writers Laura Burke in Abidjan, Rukmini Callimachi in Kinshasa, Congo, and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.