YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) - Alassane Ouattara was inaugurated as president of Ivory Coast on Saturday, in a ceremony most Ivorians hope will end a decade of conflict and mend a once prosperous economy.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the guests of honor at the event, received a standing ovation after Ouattara thanked him for sending in French troops to end an impasse over his election win.
“This day is a historic moment for all Ivorians, and it marks a will to write a new page of history for Ivory Coast,” Ouattara said in a speech in the former French colony’s official capital Yamoussoukro.
“The crisis is behind us,” he said. “It is the return of Ivory Coast into the international and African scene that we are celebrating today.”
Ouattara was declared winner of a U.N.-certified election in November billed as a chance to reunite the fertile, cocoa-growing West African nation, after rebels seized its northern half in late 2002.
Instead, the country lurched back into civil war when incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down — and used troops, paramilitaries, youth militias and Liberian mercenaries to entrench his position and crush dissent.
At least 3,000 people were killed and more than a million displaced in the power struggle, in which cocoa exports ground to a halt, banks shut and shops were ransacked by militiamen.
The impasse ended when pro-Ouattara rebels backed by the French military raided Gbagbo’s compound at the height of the fighting and seized him from his blast-proof bunker.
On Saturday, U.N. tanks lined the main avenues of the Yamoussoukro amid high security for the arrival of about 20 heads of state and dignitaries.
Thousands of cheering Ivorians gathered outside the venue and watched the inauguration on giant TV screens. In the commercial capital Abidjan, troops fired automatic weapons into the air to celebrate.
Henriette Diabate, Ivory Coast’s Grand Chancellor, placed a gold necklace around Ouattara’s neck, marking his official inauguration.
As the former IMF deputy director sat on stage wrapped in an orange sash, a group of chiefs from Yamoussoukro cast sand on the ground and poured a libation in a ritual to ask ancestral spirits to give him their blessing.
Ouattara faces the task of reuniting a bitterly divided country and getting its wrecked economy back on track.
“What has happened, has happened. We don’t want to look back anymore. We want to look straight ahead,” said Youssouf Toure, an electrician, as he waited outside the ceremony grounds.
“This crisis is finished. We can forget it, we can forgive. President Ouattara has said we need to forgive. Then we can start to get back what we lost.”
Speaking to French citizens later in Abidjan, Sarkozy said France would keep troops in Ivory Coast.
“We will maintain military forces here to protect our citizens ... But I want to make it clear between us, the French army is not here to ensure the stability of whatever government, even a friendly one,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, en route to take part in the inauguration, said the international community should support Ouattara.
“A democratically elected person should be the one to lead the country based on the will of the people. This is what we have learned,” Ban said at a meeting with Ghana’s president John Atta Mills in Accra on Saturday.
Ban said that although the Ivorian crisis was over, the United Nations and the international community still had challenges to deal with.
“There are serious challenges like national reconciliation, restoration of peace, and humanitarian affairs as well as accountability questions and impunity issues,” he said.
Gbagbo is under house arrest in Ivory Coast’s north and Ouattara wants him tried for human rights abuses during the conflict.
The International Criminal Court said this month Ouattara had asked it to investigate all allegations of serious abuses during the post-election crisis.
Ouattara’s forces are also accused of abuses, such as looting, rape and killing civilians.
Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Hereward Holland in Accra; writing by Bate Felix; editing by Andrew Heavens