Ivorian women in anti-Gbagbo march through Abidjan

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Thousands of women marched through Abidjan on Tuesday calling for Laurent Gbagbo to step down, and one of several groups was broken up by youths armed with machetes and firing automatic weapons into the air.

Anti-Gbagbo protesters hold a placard during a demonstration in Treichville, Abidjan March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Demonstrations were held in various parts of Ivory Coast’s main city, a week after Gbagbo’s forces shot dead seven women at an all-female march. Most seemed to go peacefully on Tuesday.

Ever since Gbagbo rejected U.N.-certified results showing he lost a November election to Alassane Ouattara, attempts by Ouattara supporters to protest have generally been met with violent repression.

In Port Bouet, near Abidjan’s airport, witnesses said around 50 pro-Gbagbo youths armed with AKs and machetes turned up to disperse 200 women who tried to march there.

“They fired into the air to disperse the women. They had weapons to indimidate them, but they didn’t hurt anyone,” said Bernard Aurega, vice president of Ouattara’s party in Port Bouet, who saw the march.

Seven women were killed last Thursday after security forces opened fire on protesters in the northern pro-Ouattara suburb of Abobo, according to witnesses and military sources.

On Tuesday, a march there went off peacefully.

“Gbagbo, assassin! Gbagbo, power thief! Leave!” the women shouted and sang, some in traditional dress, others wearing T-shirts printed with Ouattara’s face.

The only men with guns present were pro-Ouattara youths with AK-47s and civilian clothes, who residents said were there to protect the march. One warned Reuters TV not to film them.

Abobo is now largely controlled by insurgents calling themselves the “invisible commandos” and professing loyalty to Ouattara, after a week of gun battles in which they pushed out police and military loyal to incumbent leader Gbagbo.

In other parts of Abidjan, residents and marchers reported that the all-women protests went ahead largely peacefully.

“We started with a Muslim prayer for peace, then a Christian one. We didn’t see any security forces. There was no violence. We are very happy to be able to demonstrate,” said Kadhi M’daw, who lead around 1,000 women through the pro-Ouattara stronghold of Koumassi.

The U.N. and Western powers have warned Gbagbo he may face criminal investigation for crushing attempts at protest, although his military argues it has no choice because pro-Ouattara protesters are often armed and violent.

Dozens were killed during an attempted march on December 16, U.N. officials say, a protest that was followed by a wave of crackdowns on pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods in which scores were killed and many more kidnapped.

Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Louise Ireland