DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — An angry mob "ransacked" the headquarters of Ivory Coast's most prominent gay rights organization, an official said Monday, following days of anti-gay protests in a country generally seen as moderate on the issue.
Nearly 200 people stormed the offices of Alternative Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan, the capital, on Saturday afternoon, breaking windows with stones and stealing computers and other equipment, said Claver Toure, the group's executive director.
"Everything they could take was taken, and the rest was broken," Toure said, adding that a private security guard was hospitalized with wounds to his face.
Toure criticized what he described as a deliberately slow response by security forces. Government spokesman Bruno Kone and Interior Ministry spokesman Bazoumana Coulibaly both said they were unaware of the attack Monday morning.
In a statement on Friday, the organization Front Line Defenders detailed escalating threats against Toure's group and warned that "rumors are circulating that a more virulent attack is envisioned" for Saturday.
On Jan. 20, neighbors gathered outside Toure's home to chant anti-gay slogans and issue death threats against those inside, Front Line Defenders said. Two days later, a mob targeted Alternative's headquarters, placing signs outside the building bearing anti-gay slurs equating homosexual men with pedophiles.
It was not immediately clear what sparked what Front Line Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights foundation, described as "coordinated" attacks.
Toure said his landlord confronted him on Jan. 5 after neighbors complained that more than 20 people were staying in his home and that "condoms could be found throughout the neighborhood each morning" — accusations Toure denied.
Ivory Coast does not have a history of anti-gay violence and has occasionally been described as a haven for gay men and lesbians fleeing persecution elsewhere in the region. According to Amnesty International, it is one of just 11 countries in sub-Saharan African that have never outlawed homosexual acts.
Alternative has worked increasingly closely with the government on programs to combat HIV/AIDS.
But Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist and doctoral candidate at American University who has worked extensively with Abidjan's gay community, said it would be "naive and dangerous" to portray Ivory Coast as an oasis of freedom for sexual minorities on a hostile continent.
"We must remind ourselves that the lack of anti-gay legislation in a country like Ivory Coast is not the same as LGBT individuals having actual legal protection or recourse when victimized," Thomann said of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender minorities. "There are high levels of impunity for attacks such as those experienced by Mr. Toure and Alternative."
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Ivorian authorities must "act swiftly to protect the activists and their supporters from any further violence," and hold the perpetrators of the recent attacks accountable.
Toure said that on Saturday, security forces did not respond until the French ambassador contacted government officials. Ultimately, he said, about 10 police officers arrived with a half dozen U.N. peacekeepers.
"When we call, the police need to come right away and protect us because we are Ivorians," Toure said.
Associated Press writer Marc-Andre Boisvert contributed to this report from Abidjan.