Former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo was on a flight to the Hague-based International Criminal Court on Tuesday to face an arrest warrant issued by the global body, his lawyer said.

The court is investigating killings, rapes and other abuses committed during a four-month conflict triggered by Gbagbo's refusal to cede power to Alassane Ouattara after last year's election. Ouattara's French-backed forces deposed him in April.

Gbagbo would be the first former head of state transferred to the court, which is also pursuing Sudan's president and investigating alleged crimes in Kenya, Libya and the Central African Republic.

Two Ivorian military officials at the airport in remote Korhogo, northern Ivory Coast, where Gbagbo had been held since his capture, said he left by helicopter for an unknown destination to be transferred onto a plane to the Netherlands.

One of the officials, neither of whom could be named, had helped take him to the helicopter.

Yes, Gbagbo is on the plane, heading to the ICC, Gbagbo's lawyer Lucie Bourthoumieux told Reuters by phone from France.

There are no official charges against him that have been indicated to us. It's a political decision and not a judicial one against Gbagbo, she added.

The ICC was not immediately available for comment. A spokesman had declined to comment on Bourthoumieux's earlier report of Gbagbo's arrest warrant.

Ivory Coast's public prosecutor also could not be reached for comment.

Bourthoumieux and Gbagbo's Paris-based adviser Toussaint Alain questioned the court's right to try the former leader.

I condemn ... this victor's justice, Alain said in an emailed statement.

Gbagbo's capture in April ended a civil war that killed 3,000 people and displaced more than a million.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it welcomed the report of the arrest warrant as a pointed reminder to Ivorian leaders that no one should be above the law.

HRW senior counsel Elise Keppler said there should be investigations into evidence of abuses committed on both sides of the conflict. Efforts to hold those to account who fought in the forces allied with Ouattara are also essential, she said in a statement.

Gbagbo's indictment could prove divisive, although militiamen who backed him during the poll dispute have largely fled, been disarmed or are in hiding, so are unlikely to be in a position to cause much trouble.

The sight of Gbagbo on trial at the ICC could anger many Ivorians after the court's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo this month said Libya could try Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam at home. The ICC this year issued an arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam for crimes against humanity.

The climate in Ivory Coast is already tense, with Gbagbo's FPI party boycotting legislative polls next month in protest at the detention of FPI officials in connection with alleged crimes committed during the conflict.

ICC TARGETS

The ICC planned to focus on two to six people thought most responsible for atrocities, prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said during a visit to the country last month.

He stressed the court would only investigate crimes going back to the election, the first round of which was last October, and not those committed earlier, during the crisis that followed a failed 2002 rebellion against Gbagbo that split the country. Gbagbo's camp have rejected that time limit as unfair.

Moreno-Ocampo has up to now struggled to get hold of some of his biggest targets.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the ICC on charges of orchestrating genocide in the Darfur region, has travelled to countries including ICC member states Malawi, Chad, Kenya and Djibouti in the past without being arrested.

Gbagbo's lawyer Bourthoumieux said Ivory Coast had not ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC, meaning the court was not competent to judge him. However the ICC says Ivory Coast accepted its jurisdiction in February 2005.

The ICC is going against a report by the U.N. high representative for human rights ... which said Gbagbo does not threaten Ivory Coast's stability so does not need to be transferred, Bourthoumieux added.

If it is true that he was the one who ordered these crimes, then he should pay for them, Ferdinand Ahiba, a teacher, told Reuters TV in Abidjan's palm-lined streets.

The ICC is currently handling 11 cases, including the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, alleged war crimes committed in the Central African Republic, and Sudan's Darfur region.

(Additional reporting by Mark John in Dakar, Tim Cocks in Abidjan, Svebor Kranjc in the Netherlands; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Roche and Andrew Heavens)