Image: Nicolas Sarkozy, Alassane Ouattara
Lionel Bonaventure  /  AFP - Getty Images
French president Nicolas Sarkozy, left, stands next to Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara in front of soldiers on Saturday upon arrival at the airport in the capital Yamoussoukro.
updated 5/21/2011 11:19:01 AM ET 2011-05-21T15:19:01

Alassane Ouattara was inaugurated as Ivory Coast's president on Saturday, in a ceremony meant to mark the return of constitutional order and the end of a political standoff that sparked a conflict that killed hundreds earlier this year.

"The serious crisis that struck Ivory Coast the day after the election ... has been resolved democratically, respecting the will of the people," Ouattara said in a speech after receiving the country's highest honor — a golden chain called The Great Necklace, worn by all previous presidents.

"This ceremony today is not about the victory of one side over another, but about rediscovered brotherhood and new beginnings," he said after the ceremony.

Tens of thousands of Ouattara's supporters streamed in to Yamoussoukro to witness the event, but no violence was reported.

The stately ceremony should have taken place six months ago after Ouattara won November's presidential election. He was prevented from taking office by outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to accept his defeat and who used the army to prevent Ouattara from leaving the hotel that had served as his campaign headquarters. Ouattara was forced to take the oath of office in a ceremony last December inside the hotel lobby attended only by his closest aides.

Saturday's inauguration in Yamoussoukro was attended by nearly 20 heads of state, in a dramatic turnaround underscoring the broad international support he enjoys after an electoral victory that was certified by the United Nations.

"This inauguration is highly symbolic," said Ivorian expert Christian Bouquet.

The large international presence is marked by members of the African Union, who were unable to negotiate a way out of the crisis, said Bouquet, a professor of geography at the University of Bordeaux III.

"But also France and the U.N., who've come to cap off their determination to see democracy prevail," he said.

It also symbolizes the end of the post-electoral conflict that Ouattara's government claims took 3,000 lives.

Bodies still clog the wells of towns in Ivory Coast's troubled west, where forces loyal to the two men waged a bloody battle for power.

U.N. helicopters zoomed overhead, ferrying presidents and prime ministers from the international airport in Abidjan, the commercial capital. French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived by special flight from Paris Saturday and was greeted with cries of "thank you" by the crowd at the ceremony's venue, acknowledging the key military assistance given by France to Ouattara's forces.

Gbagbo, many others under house arrest
Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, after French forces led an air raid on the presidential compound where he had locked himself inside a bunker. He and the former first lady are under house arrest awaiting trial, as are many of his ministers and advisers.

Ouattara also thanked France "for its engagement in the Ivorian crisis ... which allowed many lives to be saved."

He also thanked the U.N. and U.S. President Barack Obama, "whose frank and sincere support was decisive."

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was one of the mediators appointed by the AU to try to convince Gbagbo to relinquish power, urged Ouattara to focus on unifying the Ivory Coast.

"There is no point in looking back," he said. "And revenge does not pay."

Odinga said Gbagbo had hoped to hold out long enough to reach a power-sharing deal similar to Kenya's.

"My view is this would have been a rape of democracy," Odinga said. "The African democratic process needs to come of age. People go to elections to choose a leader. There are winners and there are losers."

The normally sleepy boulevards of Yamoussoukro, a city of 300,000 people, were choked with cars. Tens of thousands of Ouattara's supporters poured in overnight, most of them finding nowhere to sleep but the sidewalk.

"I wanted to see this day," said 24-year-old Daho Barke, who slept outside after driving in from Abidjan, the center of government where some of the worst fighting took place. "It's more than a dream to finally see this day come true. We suffered so much to get here."

Going forward, it's unclear how Ouattara will handle allegations of abuse by his forces. After more than four months of diplomatic efforts to remove Gbagbo, Ouattara enlisted the help of a former rebel group based in the country's north.

The pro-Ouattara fighters who streamed in from the north, east, and west and are accused of carrying out horrific massacres in villages known to have supported Gbagbo. The U.N. estimates that over 300 people were killed in the town of Duekoue alone. Aid workers say bodies were thrown in wells and are rotting inside, where no one can reach them.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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