By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.S. embassy in Ivory Coast has removed photos of six gay men at a tribute for victims of the Orlando club shooting from its website and social media and expressed "deep regret" after the men were abused and driven to flee their homes.
The embassy hosted an event two weeks ago to honor the Orlando victims and posted a photo of the six men online with the caption: 'LGBTI community signing the condolence book'.
Two of the men were attacked, four were verbally abused, and all six fled their homes after the photo was circulated on Facebook and other social media sites, said the head of an Abidjan-based gay rights group, who asked to remain anonymous.
"Last night, as a matter of safety, we decided to take the photo down from our website and social media accounts," said Elizabeth Ategou, information officer at the embassy in Abidjan.
"The embassy deeply regrets that anybody has been attacked or threatened - it was certainly not our intent," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the embassy would review its online and social media policy.
Ategou said the embassy had spoken to the rights group to show its support for the Ivorian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and had also contacted the police.
A gunman pledging allegiance to the Islamic State militant group killed 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub on June 12 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Days after the tribute in Abidjan, Louna, one of the men in the photo, was walking in his neighborhood when a mob pushed him to the ground, stole his phone and wallet, and beat him.
"I don't have a life anymore," said the 36-year-old, adding that he did not know the photo had been posted online until a friend called him and told him that he had seen it.
While the director of the gay rights group gave the embassy permission to post the photo on their website, he said he would not have done so if he had known what the caption would say.
Ivory Coast is one of the few African countries where same-sex acts are legal and have never been criminalize.
While it is considered one of the most tolerant countries for sexual minorities in the region, LGBT people face widespread abuse, stigma, and violence, rights groups say.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Additional Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)