ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Soldiers backing Ivory Coast's defiant leader mowed down women protesting his refusal to leave power in a hail of gunfire Thursday, killing at least six and shocking a nation where women's marches have historically been used as a last resort against an unrestrained army.
President Laurent Gbagbo insists on staying in office after an election that international observers say he lost. His security force has shown almost no reserve in opening fire on unarmed civilians, but the women decided this week to organize the march in the nation's commercial capital, assuming soldiers would be too ashamed to open fire on them.
But at least six of the thousands of women demonstrating Thursday were killed on the spot, said Mohammed Dosso, an assistant to the mayor of Abobo who said he saw the bodies.
Sirah Drane, 41, who helped organize the march, said she was holding the megaphone and preparing to address the large crowd that had gathered at a traffic circle in Abobo.
"That's when we saw the tanks," she said. "There were thousands of women. And we said to ourselves, 'They won't shoot at women.' … I heard a boom. They started spraying us. … I tried to run and fell down. The others trampled me. Opening fire on unarmed women? It's inconceivable."
The attack prompted an immediate rebuke from the United States, which like most governments has urged Gbagbo to step down and has recognized his rival as the country's legitimate president.
"The moral bankruptcy of Laurent Gbagbo is evident as his security forces killed women protesters," said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in a Twitter message.
Nearly 400 people have been killed in the west African country, including 32 in the last 24 hours, almost all of them men who had voted for opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, according to U.N. figures.