“Don’t kill me!” were the first words that Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo shouted when forces loyal to his rival Alassane Ouattara captured him, a witness says.

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Laurent Gbagbo has called for an end to fighting in Ivory Coast hours after the strongman was captured by forces loyal to his rival for the presidency at the climax of a deadly months-long crisis.

“I want us to lay down arms and to enter the civilian part of the crisis, which should be completed rapidly for life in the country to resume,” Gbagbo said on his rival Alassane Ouattara’s TCI channel shortly after his capture.

Gbagbo, who has held power since 2000 and stubbornly refused to admit defeat in November’s presidential election, was detained and taken to his rival’s temporary hotel headquarters with his wife Simone and son Michel.

“The nightmare is over,” Ouattara’s prime minister, former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, said on the victorious camp’s television channel, calling for any forces still loyal to Gbagbo to change sides.

“There can be no witch hunts; join the Republican Forces,” Soro said.

“After fierce fighting, surrounded and defeated, Gbagbo and his wife Simone Gbagbo have just surrendered and are now under arrest,” he added, calling on Ivorians to remain calm and saying a lawless Abidjan would soon be secured.

The network showed footage of Gbagbo inside a room in the Golf Hotel along with several senior aides, wearing a vest, wiping himself down with a towel and then changing shirts. He appeared visibly tired but otherwise unharmed.

Ouattara spokeswoman Anne Ouloto told AFP the former first couple had been brought to the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara’s camp was for months besieged by Gbagbo’s forces, around 1pm (2300 AEST), shortly after the arrest.

Speaking in New York, Ivory Coast’s UN envoy Youssoufou Bamba vowed that Gbagbo would now stand trial.

“Mr Gbagbo was arrested. He is alive and well and he will be brought to justice for the crimes he has committed,” Bamba said, adding that only Ivorian forces were involved in his detention.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said Gbagbo and his wife were under the protection of UN police at the Golf Hotel amid fears of reprisals or summary justice.

“UN gendarmes are now ensuring the security of Mr Gbagbo and his wife in an apartment in the Golf Hotel,” Le Roy said. “To my knowledge most of the fighting has stopped but there are pockets of resistance.”

Ouattara will now decide whether Gbagbo should face trial but UN guards would stay with him even if he is moved outside of Abidjan.

After the capture, General Bruno Dogbo Ble, the head of Gbagbo’s Republican Guard, called the UN to say he wanted to surrender and Le Roy said at least 200 Gbagbo fighters had laid down their weapons.

“It is an important step in the process, but we cannot call it euphoria. This is not over. It is extremely important that we maintain law and order inside Abidjan and the whole country,” Le Roy said.

The United Nations has so far confirmed about 800 dead in the Gbagbo-Ouattara conflict since December, but warned that the toll was probably much higher.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gbagbo’s arrest “sends a strong signal to dictators” in the region and beyond that they “may not disregard” the voice of their own people in free and fair elections.

Earlier, witnesses reported seeing pro-Ouattara forces entering Gbagbo’s besieged residential compound, from which they had been repeatedly repulsed, while French and UN armoured vehicles deployed on a road nearby.

Troops from the cocoa-rich nation’s former colonial ruler France and from a UN peacekeeping force have been pounding Gbagbo’s forces since Sunday in a bid to destroy the heavy weapons they were reportedly using against civilians.

Bodies litter the streets of the west African nation’s commercial capital from days of street-to-street fighting, after Ouattara’s forces swept down from the north of the country in a lightning attack less than two week ago.

A spokesman for the UN mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) said its peacekeepers and allies from France’s Licorne force had aimed to destroy heavy weapons that were being used against civilians.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said the French leader had a lengthy phone conversation with Ouattara, a former deputy head of the International Monetary Fund, shortly after Gbagbo was arrested.

France said its military had taken part in the weekend raids at the UN chief’s request, and firmly denied reports that its special forces had taken Gbagbo and handed him over to Ouattara’s men.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Gbagbo should be treated with respect following his capture, and should face “a fair and properly organised judicial process in Cote d’Ivoire”.

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has launched a preliminary investigation into the violence in Ivory Coast to see if crimes committed are serious enough to come under its jurisdiction.

The court tries allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Both sides have been accused of massacres during the stand-off and ensuing conflict, with mass graves reportedly found near Abidjan and hundreds killed or raped in the western town of Duekoue.