A soldier loyal to Ouattara guards prisoners that were loyal to Gbagbo in Yopougon, Abidjan [EPA]

Members of a special army unit controlled by Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast's former president, are the leading suspects in the kidnapping of four foreigners earlier this month in Abidjan, the country's justice minister has said.

"An investigation has been launched over the kidnapping," Jeannot Kouadio Ahoussou said on Saturday.

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"There are several leads, the most serious being elements of the Republican Guards," he said, referring to the elite army squad.

The four foreigners - two French, a Beninese and a Malaysian - were seized from Abidjan's Novotel Hotel on April 4 by armed men.

They were taken at the height of the political crisis sparked by Gbagbo's refusal to step down following the November 28 elections against rival Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner.

House arrest

Gbagbo was eventually arrested by forces loyal to Ouattara on April 11 and is now under house arrest in the northern Korhogo town.

Al Jazeera reports on Ivorians too afraid to go home, despite the end of the conflict

Authorities have said preliminary investigations have been launched against Gbagbo for crimes by his government.

After months of failed diplomacy, pro-Ouattara former rebels from the north launched an offensive in late March, seizing swathes of territory before becoming bogged down in urban combat.

UN and French forces intervened to destroy Gbagbo's heavy weapons in an operation that provided Ouattara forces the breakthrough they needed, ending a crisis that left well over 1,500 people dead and forced one million from their homes.

Thousands of people who fled their homes during the post-election violence now say they too afraid to return home.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies