Masked men hurl smoke bombs at venue of Ukraine gay forum

Odessa (Ukraine) (AFP) - Masked men on Saturday hurled smoke bombs into a venue in the Ukraine port city of Odessa where gay rights activists were to hold a forum after deciding against marching in defiance of a ban.

They threw "several" smoke bombs at the participants before fleeing, Odessa Pride spokesman Kyrylo Bodelan told AFP, adding that no one was hurt in the attack.

LGBT activists were planning to hold a forum on the history of the gay rights movement in the strategic Black Sea port city after a local court on Thursday banned the planned march over fears it could spark violence.

Bodelan earlier denounced the ban, saying it was "illegal and violates our constitutional right of assembly."

A handful of activists demonstrated near the town hall in defiance of the ban, drawing taunts from passers-by.

An AFP correspondent saw an elderly woman trying to wrest a placard from one demonstrator that read "Dignity Has No Colour". Police quickly intervened to defuse the confrontation.

Prominent extreme nationalist group Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) -- once central to the demonstrations in Kiev that toppled a Russian-backed president last year -- had voiced fierce opposition to Saturday's event.

"We won't beat the gays, but this march will not take place," local Pravy Sektor leader Sergui Sternenko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

A gay pride march in the capital Kiev in June -- the second in the nation's post-Soviet history -- was marred by scuffles after activists were attacked by far-right nationalists. Around a dozen people were injured.

The socially conservative country -- locked in a bruising war with pro-Russian insurgents -- is seeking a closer alliance with Europe and remains keen to promote civil liberties freely enjoyed in much of the West.

But homophobia remains rampant in a nation where the conservative Orthodox church wields considerable influence and nationalist far-right groups have grown more prominent.

Odessa regional governor Mikheil Saakashvili, the Westernising ex-president of Georgia, kept his distance from the controversy, with his administration insisting it was a matter for the city authorities.