By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Six gay men in Ivory Coast were abused and forced to flee their homes after they were pictured signing a condolence book for victims of the recent attack on a gay nightclub in Florida, a rights group said on Wednesday.
The U.S. embassy in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan hosted an event a fortnight ago to honor the Florida victims and published a photo of the six men on its website with the caption: 'LGBTI community signing the condolence book'.
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, who only gave his nickname for fear of further attacks.
Louna said he did not know the photo had been posted online until a friend called him and told him that he had seen it.
"I can't go out. I don't know who might recognize me," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Abidjan, adding that he fears he will never be able to return home.
Another man in the picture was also attacked after the photo was circulated on Facebook and other websites, said the head of an Abidjan-based gay rights group, who asked to remain anonymous.
The other four men in the photo were verbally abused, and all six fled their homes, he added.
While the director of the rights group gave the U.S. 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.
"We are afraid now. There is no security," he said.
Ivory Coast is one of the few African countries where same-sex acts are legal and have never been criminalized.
While it is considered one of the most tolerant countries for sexual minorities in the region, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face widespread abuse, stigma, and violence, rights groups say.
The photo remained on the U.S. embassy's website as of Wednesday. Embassy officials were not immediately available to comment.
(Reporting By Nellie Peyton, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and 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)