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Ex-Ivory Coast leader at Belgian airport, likely headed home

The former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, checked in at Belgium’s main airport on Thursday, his lawyer said, ready to fly to his home country for the first time in nearly a decade after being acquitted by the International Criminal Court.

Gbagbo was not seen checking in by waiting media, but lawyer Habiba Toure told The Associated Press that he was finalizing his flight formalities and had headed into the departures area of Brussels airport through a protocol entrance.

A commercial flight transiting through Felix Houphouet-Boigny International Airport in Ivory Coast’s biggest city, Abidjan, was scheduled to leave at 10:55 am local time (0855 GMT).

A supporter of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo takes photos with her smartphone at the Brussels international airport in Brussels, Thursday, June 17, 2021. The former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is returning home to Ivory Coast for the first time in nearly a decade, after his acquittal on war crimes charges was upheld at the International Criminal Court earlier this year. (AP PhotoOlivier Matthys)

Gbagbo’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2010 presidential election sparked months of violence that killed at least 3,000 people and brought Ivory Coast to the brink of civil war. He has spent much of the past decade since his arrest in the Netherlands awaiting trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

In 2019, the judge said prosecutors had failed to make their case even before the defense lawyers had presented their side. The former president was released from custody two years ago but has been living in Belgium pending the outcome of the appeal by ICC prosecutors.

Gbagbo’s scheduled return to Ivory Coast on Thursday is galvanizing his supporters, who believe his prosecution was politically motivated. They’ve begun preparations for a festive welcome, with signs bearing the ex-president’s photo on display in parts of Abidjan.

A supporter of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo gestures as she gathers with others at the Brussels international airport in Brussels, Thursday, June 17, 2021. The former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is returning home to Ivory Coast for the first time in nearly a decade, after his acquittal on war crimes charges was upheld at the International Criminal Court earlier this year. (AP PhotoOlivier Matthys)

Gbagbo appears to be receiving a cautious welcome from Alassane Ouattara, his political rival who won the contested election and has been president ever since. After Gbagbo’s acquittal was upheld, Ouattara said the former president’s travel expenses, and those of his family, would be covered by the state.