A former youth leader and close ally of Ivory Coast ex-president and international war crimes defendant Laurent Gbagbo was arrested in neighboring Ghana on Thursday, a Ghanaian official and exiled Gbagbo supporters said.
As head of the Young Patriots street militia in the West African state, Charles Ble Goude was a powerful member of the old regime under Gbagbo, who is awaiting trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
Ble Goude rose to become minister of youth before fleeing at the end of a civil war sparked by Gbagbo's refusal to accept a 2010 election defeat to Alassane Ouattara.
"I can confirm that we have arrested someone we believe is the former Ivorian youth minister," Larry Gbevlo-Lartey, Ghana's national security coordinator, told Reuters.
"There's a warrant for his arrest and we have been looking for him for some time now. We're taking him through the process and we'll later hand him over," he said.
Ble Goude is wanted by Ivorian authorities for alleged kidnappings, illegal detentions, torture, incitement of hatred and economic crimes while a member of Gbagbo's inner circle.
United Nations investigators and rights groups accuse his followers of committing grave human rights abuses including torture, summary executions and ethnically motivated murders during violence that killed over 3,000 people in 2011.
Ivorian officials would not immediately say whether they had requested his extradition. "[His arrest] appears to be confirmed, but we won't be making any statements until tomorrow," government spokesman Bruno Kone told Reuters.
Exiled Gbagbo supporters living in France and Ghana said Ble Goude was arrested in the capital Accra around 8 AM (0800 GMT) by eight Ghanaian and Ivorian plainclothes policemen.
"We are deeply worried, because he was in Ghana where he was living underground. We fear there will be an extradition demand," Alain Toussaint, a former spokesman for Gbagbo now living in France, told Reuters.
A member of the legal team representing Ivorian exiles living in Ghana said he had been in touch with Ble Goude and was waiting for Ghanaian authorities to officially confirm the charges against the former minister.
Most top military and political officials from Gbagbo's regime were killed, are in jail in Ivory Coast or now live in exile, many of them in Ghana.
While Ivorian authorities have issued over two dozen international arrest warrants for Gbagbo allies, many for crimes allegedly committed during the post-election violence, only two have been acted upon.
Ghanaian police last year arrested former budget minister Justin Kone Katinan, but Ivory Coast's request for his extradition has been stuck in the courts for months.
Ghana has repeatedly stated it considers the exiles to be refugees and has yet to extradite any Gbagbo supporters.
A wave of attacks on Ivorian security installations and infrastructure that began last August, which Ivory Coast blamed on Gbagbo's supporters in Ghana, further strained relations between the two neighbors.
A United Nations expert panel found that Gbagbo's supporters, including Ble Goude, had established a strategic command in Ghana and were working to destabilize the government of Ouattara, who is now president.
Gbagbo's backers reject the accusations of involvement in the attacks, which they say are being used as a pretext for widespread abuses targeting opposition supporters.
"The arrest of Ble Goude shows progress by Ghana in ensuring the country will not be used to escape justice," said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"Ghanaian authorities now need to afford due process and carefully examine whether there is a credible risk of inhuman treatment or torture in Ivory Coast, if they are considering an extradition there."