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Jerome Taylor: Removal of the old leader will do nothing to heal a bleeding nation torn in half

Although Ouattara is recognised as the real winner of the election, 46 per cent of people still voted for Gbagbo

Even if Laurent Gbagbo is eventually hauled from his besieged underground bunker, Ivory Coast has a long and tortuous journey ahead of it as a bitterly divided nation tries to heal its wounds.

The imminent defeat of Mr Gbagbo and his core followers will lead to the capture or death of a man who has flown in the face of international opinion and refused to cede power. But it will do little to disarm his passionate youth militias or repair a country that has been torn in half for a decade.

The country's commercial capital, Abidjan, has been carved up into a patchwork of sectarian neighbourhoods, each one controlled by armed supporters of Mr Gbagbo or his rival Alassane Ouattara. Both sides are implacably opposed to each other's existence and have been fed a daily diet of propaganda that leaves little room for trust between the two camps.

Ouattara's first job will be to try to unite the commercial heart of the world's largest cocoa producer before turning his attention to the rest of the country where religious divides are even more acute. He will have help from the UN and France but no one will want to risk triggering full-scale battles between the militias in an already traumatised city.

"The security situation is not going to improve immediately when Gbagbo surrenders," said Hannah Koep, Ivory Coast analyst at London-based consultancy Control Risks. "His armed militias are roaming the streets of Abidjan and are likely to loot and continue to engage in localised clashes with Republican forces."

Mr Ouattara has widespread support from the international community and was universally declared to be the winner of last year's presidential elections. But the Forces Nouvelles rebels that swept in from the north are no unified bunch. Their ranks are filled with competing factions who are united in their hatred for Mr Gbagbo, rather than their unequivocal support for Mr Ouattara.

"The political situation is going to be a huge challenge going forward," adds Ms Koep. "Ouattara will have many people – including many rebel commanders – to reward once this crisis is over."

Although the international community recognises Mr Ouattara as the clear winner of last year's elections, 46 per cent of the country still voted for Mr Gbagbo and will need to be brought into the political process if any sort of lasting peace is to be achieved.

Since the end of the last civil war in 2004 Ivory Coast has been divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a Christian south which – under Mr Gbagbo's rule – benefited from deliberate policies that discriminated against the north and helped keep the country permanently teetering towards sectarian conflict. Although Mr Gbabgo's militias have been widely accused of committing atrocities, the northern rebels have also been accused of massacring up to 800 people in the western town of Duékoué. On Wednesday the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced plans to launch a formal inquiry into mass killings – an investigation which could prove to be a headache for any new government trying to win both international legitimacy and repay those who helped it win power. The country's fragile economy is almost entirely reliant on the cocoa crop, half a million tonnes of which is currently stored in warehouses, and is at risk of rotting during the upcoming rainy season unless it can be exported.

More than 110,000 people have fled into neighbouring Liberia and a further one million are displaced internally. The months of political stalemate and warfare, meanwhile, have created even more distrust in an already fractured society.

"The election was supposed to heal wounds but instead it has ended up exacerbating them," says Mwangi Kimenyi, an Ivory Coast expert at the Brooking Institute. "There is now even more bitterness."