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Crowds cheer Laurent Gbagbo as he returns to home village

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Leo Correa/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Laurent Gbagbo

Thousands of supporters gave Ivory Coast's controversial former president Laurent Gbagbo a hero's welcome, shouting "Hurray" and flashing the V for Victory sign as he made a triumphant return to his home village on Sunday.

"Thank you for such a large turnout," Gbagbo, 76, told the crowd shortly after arriving in Mama.

"Ten years is a long time," he said, referring to the decade he spent facing charges of crimes against humanity before an international court.

The village in the southwest of the West African country has been a hive of activity in anticipation of the visit since Gbagbo arrived back in Ivory Coast from Europe on June 18 after being definitively acquitted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

He was tried on charges stemming from violence that claimed around 3,000 lives after he refused to concede electoral defeat in 2010 to current President Alassane Ouattara.

On Sunday, Gbagbo made his way to Mama by road, stopping first in the capital Yamoussoukro in the centre of the country, the world's top cocoa producer.

He then headed to the town of Blouzon, near Mama, to visit the grave of his mother Marguerite Gado, who died in 2014 when he was in prison at the ICC in The Hague.

Mama had begun buzzing at dawn, its main artery choked with coaches, motorbikes and cars filled with supporters of the former president.

"I couldn't resist such an event, the return of the prodigal son," said a pensioner wearing a sarong as he arrived in a coach.

A youth who gave his name as Eric Legre Gbagbo agreed, saying: "It's been 10 years that he hasn't stepped foot in his village. No one wants to miss this."

Security forces were on hand but keeping a low profile.

Gbagbo's return to the former French colony on June 17 saw violence, with police making massive use of tear gas to disperse crowds.

Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party said several dozen of his followers were arrested.

Ouattara, re-elected controversially to a third term in October 2020, gave the green light for Gbagbo's return a few days after the ICC in late March upheld his acquittal first pronounced in January 2019.