Hundreds of people were yesterday occupying Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicenter of the worst demonstrations in a decade against Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government, which have seen almost 1,000 people detained and scores wounded nationwide.
Several protesters camped around the square’s monument to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, occasionally chanting “government, resign” and cheering after the police withdrew on Saturday.
Taksim has been at the heart of a wave of more than 90 demonstrations in 48 cities nationwide, the biggest public outcry against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government since it assumed power in 2002.
However, after two days of violent protests and appeals by Turkey’s Western allies for restraint, the situation appeared to have calmed yesterday after police pulled out of Taksim and officials took on a more conciliatory tone.
Officials said 53 civilians and 26 police officers were hurt during the violence, while Amnesty International put the number of wounded in the hundreds and said there had been two deaths.
Amnesty said some protesters had been left blinded by the massive quantities of tear gas and pepper spray used by police while at least two people were hit in the head with gas canisters.
Turkish Minister of the Interior Muammer Guler said police had detained 939 people as of Saturday evening, but many have been released.
Turkey’s Western allies Britain, France and the US have called for the Erdogan government to exercise restraint, while Turkish officials acknowledged mistakes.
“We have learned our lesson,” Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas told NTV on Saturday.
He said he regretted “not informing the people enough” on the details of the construction project in Taksim, the spark that led to the protests.
What began as an outcry against a local development project in Turkey’s largest city snowballed into a broader protest against what critics say is the government’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.
Speaking at a rally on Saturday, Erdogan said: “It is true that there have been some mistakes, extremism in the police response.”
However, he added: “I call on the protesters to stop their demonstrations immediately.”
He also vowed to push forward with controversial plans to redevelop the square, but said the project may not include a shopping mall, as feared by protesters.
The Turkish Ministry of the Interior promised legal action against police officers who had acted “disproportionately.”
Turkish President Abdullah Gul had called on Saturday for restraint on both sides.
Mass circulation newspaper Milliyet plastered “Freedom Park” on the front page, with a picture showing the thousands who had flocked to the square on Saturday.