Charles Ble Goude, a former militia leader who was acquitted of crimes against humanity related to his role in Ivory Coast's civil war, returned from exile on Saturday as politicians sought to reconcile after years of instability and conflict.
Hundreds of supporters wearing clothes printed with Ble Goude's image sang and danced in the Yopougon suburb of Abidjan to welcome him home after eight years.
The return of Ble Goude following his acquittal by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2019 is part of a wider rapprochement between political factions in Ivory Coast, that President Alassane Ouattara hopes will reduce political tension ahead of elections in 2025.
"I dreamed of this moment from my prison cell," Ble Goude told the crowd that stood in the pouring rain. "You will accompany me in this peace process that our country needs."
Much of Ivory Coast's tension stems from a brief civil war following a 2010 election, after which former president Laurent Gbagbo failed to accept defeat to Ouattara. Tensions have been simmering since and at least 20 people died in clashes when Ouattara decided to run again in 2020 elections.
Gbagbo, who was ousted during the civil war and was also acquitted of war crimes in The Hague, returned home last year after a decade in exile.
Ble Goude, who headed the notorious Young Patriots street militia during Gbagbo's presidency, was accused of inciting attacks on civilians and United Nations soldiers.
He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison by a court in Abidjan in 2019 for his role in the civil war. Ble Goude told Radio France International last week that he expects those charges to be dropped once he returns.
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