THE HAGUE (Reuters) - War crimes prosecutors accused ex-Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo of orchestrating "unspeakable violence", including murder and gang rape, to cling to power after losing an election, pitching his country into civil war.
Rising stiffly on the opening day of his trial at the International Criminal Court, Gbagbo, 70, pleaded not guilty to all charges. His co-accused, youth leader Charles Ble Goude, 44, also pleaded innocence and said he did not recognize the charges.
Four months of conflict ravaged Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa grower, in early 2011 after Gbagbo refused to step down. Around 3,000 people were killed and the fighting ended only when former colonial power France intervened militarily, allowing election winner Alessane Ouattara to take office.
The trial could ramp up tensions in Ivory Coast, where Gbagbo, the highest-ranked politician ever to appear before the 13-year-old ICC, remains influential.
The gallery was packed with rowdy supporters, many of them Ivorians who had traveled to The Hague from Paris. Some rushed to a bulletproof glass barrier and chanted: "Gbagbo! President!" as the accused was led out of the courtroom.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said Gbagbo and his inner circle had targeted Muslims and ethnic groups they assumed had supported Ouattara.
"Cote d'Ivoire succumbed to chaos and was subjected to unspeakable violence," she said, using the country's French name. "Nothing would be allowed to defeat Mr. Gbagbo: If politics failed, violence was seen as politics by other means."
Bensouda related the account of one witness who had been arrested at a pro-Ouattara rally and subjected, along with other women, to three days of gang rapes by armed gendarmes.
Seven were killed when state security agents opened fire from an armored car on a demonstration in a marketplace in an immigrant neighborhood of the capital Abidjan, she added.
In Ivory Coast, the trial was closely watched by supporters and opponents alike.
Gbagbo's supporters, hundreds of whom demonstrated outside the courthouse on Thursday, say he is a victim of neo-colonial meddling by France and accuse prosecutors of ignoring alleged crimes by Ouattara's camp.
"We want him released," said Paris-based Ivorian Michele, demonstrating in the windswept street in front of the court in The Hague. Ouattara was a "rebel chief" who had been helped by France to usurp power, she added.
On Friday the prosecution will continue to outline its case, and on Monday the defense takes its turn. The trial is expected to last at least a year in all.
The case is a test of the credibility of the global war crimes court. Its last attempt to press charges against a top politician, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, ended in disarray amid fierce diplomatic lobbying by Kenya and its African allies. [L8N15B3M7]
The court has so far handed down just two convictions, both against little-known African warlords. It opened its first investigation outside the continent on Wednesday, into the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Andrew Roche