, ABIDJAN, Mar 3 – Security forces loyal to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo shot dead at least six women at a demonstration on Thursday in support of his rival for the presidency, witnesses said.
They started shooting as several hundred women gathered in the Abobo neighbourhood of Abidjan, a stronghold of Alassane Ouattara, and shouted "Gbagbo, get out!" and "Alassane for president", a resident told AFP.
When the Defence and Security Forces, the army backing Gbagbo, arrived with an armoured vehicle, "they opened fire," another resident said.
"Six women were killed on the spot," he said.
Other witnesses said the toll was higher and there were many wounded, some by gunfire and others in a stampede that followed the shooting.
Violent clashes have erupted in the west African country since a disputed election on November 28 which Ouattara is internationally recognised to have won.
Gbagbo, who has been in power since 2000, has refused to stand down.
About 300 people had been killed in the violence and thousands have fled, according to UN figures, and there are fears of a return to civil war.
Ouattara has the support of much of the international community, including the United Nations. The African Union has set up a team of heads of state to find a way out of the crisis.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned on Thursday that civilians were at grave risk from the flare-up of violence in Abidjan and also in the west of Ivory Coast, which is the world\’s leading cocoa producer.
"A humanitarian crisis is unfolding as people flee the fighting," Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council. "I remain extremely concerned about the increasing violence and human rights abuses in Ivory Coast."
"The flaring up of armed clashes in Abidjan and the west of the country puts civilians at grave risk," she added.
Days of clashes last week have forced hundreds to flee the Abobo neighbourhood, which is in the north of the commercial capital. Ouattara himself is holed up with his aides in the Golf Hotel complex in the south of the city.
The fighting has in particular led to a surge of refugees into neighbouring Liberia.
Ivory Coast was already a divided country after a foiled coup bid against Gbagbo in 2002, when his loyalists retained control of the south but rebels took the north.
It had been hoped the November election would reunite the nation.
The New Forces (FN) rebels signed a peace deal with Gbagbo\’s government in 2007, under which their leader Guillaume Soro became prime minister.
The former rebels, based in the central city of Bouake, are allied with Ouattara but have not so far taken overt military action.
When Ouattara was proclaimed winner of the November election, on results Gbagbo supporters claim were rigged, the veteran opposition figure made Soro his own prime minister.
The United Nations stepped up its criticism of Gbagbo this week after his men opened fire on UN workers and briefly detained others on Monday.
And on Wednesday the United States urged its citizens against travel to Ivory Coast, asking those living there "to consider their own personal security and contingency plans, including temporary departure."