The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo over post-electoral violence in the West African nation in a stunning blow to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Judges ordered the immediate release of the 73-year-old deposed strongman, the first head of state to stand trial at the troubled ICC, and his right-hand man, Charles Ble Goude.

The pair hugged each other after the decision was handed down while supporters started cheering wildly and clapping in the public gallery of the court, prompting head judge Cuno Tarfusser to order them to sit down and "behave".

"The chamber by majority hereby decides that the prosecution has failed to satisfy the burden of proof to the requisite standard," Tarfusser told the court.

He added that the court "grants the defence motions for acquittal for all charges for Mr Laurent Gbagbo and Mr Charles Ble Goude and orders the immediate release of both accused."

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The pair each faced four charges of crimes against humanity over the 2010-2011 bloodshed in which around 3,000 people were killed.

Prosecutors said Gbagbo and Ble Goude, 47, clung to power "by all means" after he was narrowly defeated by his bitter rival and now president Alassane Outtara in the elections in the world's largest cocoa-producing nation.

But the judges said there was no evidence of a "common plan" to foment violence.

Their release was suspended until Wednesday to give the prosecution time to respond to the shock judgment.

The highly divisive case has tested the court's avowed aim of delivering justice to the victims of the world's worst crimes.

It comes after a series of setbacks for the tribunal, which began life in 2002.

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