Reuters International

Former Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo attends his trial on charges of unleashing a civil war, in The Hague in this still image taken by video January 28, 2016. REUTERS/ICC via Reuters

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By Tim Cocks

DAKAR (Reuters) - Four senior aides to former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo have returned home from exile in Ghana more than five years after his ouster in a war over a disputed election, a step the leader of his party said would aid reconciliation.

The four men, who included former Defence Minister Kadet Bertin, were persuaded to return following negotiations with the government and guarantees that they would not face charges related to the civil war.

Accompanying Bertin were Kacou Brou, leader of Gbagbo's Fesci youth militia, Yaon Franck, a presidential bodyguard, and Watchard Kedjebo, another militia leader.

Five years after the conflict that killed 3,000 people, the country, the world's leading cocoa producer, has been reborn as one of Africa's economic stars, held up by many as a model of post-conflict reconstruction.

But deep-seated tensions between supporters of Gbagbo and those of President Alassane Ouattara -- who won the war with French backing -- continue to simmer.

Pascal Affi N'Guessan, leader of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), confirmed on Saturday that the four men had returned by plane late on Thursday and met Defence Minister Alain Donwahi and Minister for Social Cohesion Mariatou Kone.

A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"They're back," N'Guessan told Reuters by telephone. "It's good for reconciliation, but they also need to free all the political prisoners," he said, referring to members of Gbagbo's regime currently in jail for alleged war crimes.

Gbagbo is in custody at the Hague-based International Criminal Court on charges that, when he was attempting to hold on to power in 2011 despite losing an election, he or forces under him committed crimes including rape, murder and persecution.

His main youth militia leader Charles Ble Goude is also being held in The Hague, while his wife Simone is being tried at home.

Gbagbo's supporters and human rights groups complain that not a single senior member of the former rebel forces loyal to Ouattara has been jailed, despite plenty of evidence that they, too, orchestrated crimes.

"It is the justice of the victors, not justice based on truth," N'Guessan said.

During the conflict, Bertin -- then Gbagbo's security advisor -- was targeted by EU sanctions, accused of being an "instigator of campaigns of intimidation and repression," charges he denied.

(Editing by Helen Popper)

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