Hundreds of riot police overran improvised protest barricades at Istanbul’s Taksim Square yesterday, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in running battles with those who have been occupying the area for more than a week.
The police raid, which came on the 12th day of nationwide protests, sparked clashes with groups of protesters well into the afternoon. Most protesters who had been in the square fled into the adjacent Gezi Park, where hundreds have been camping out to try to stop a development project that would cut down trees in the park.
A peaceful demonstration against the park’s redevelopment has morphed into a test of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority. Amid yesterday’s clashes, Erdogan made it more than clear that he had come to the end of his tolerance.
“To those who ... are at Taksim and elsewhere taking part in the demonstrations with sincere feelings: I call on you to leave those places and to end these incidents and I send you my love. But for those who want to continue with the incidents I say: ‘It’s over.’ As of now we have no tolerance for them,” Erdogan said, speaking in the capital, Ankara.
“Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists and no one will get away with it,” he added.
The unrest — which has spread to 78 cities across Turkey — has been inspired in part by what some see as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of governing and his perceived attempts to impose a religious and conservative lifestyle in a country with secular laws.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, says he is committed to Turkey’s secular laws and denies charges of autocracy.
Bulldozers immediately began dismantling some of the barricades and makeshift shelters set up on the square. By afternoon, the clashes had extended to the very edge of Gezi Park, with acrid tear gas covering its sides, even though authorities had promised not to go into the park.
Several people were rushed on stretchers to a first aid station manned by protesters in the park before being taken to ambulances. Others were carried away, overcome by tear gas.
Three people have died — two protesters and a policeman — and more than 5,000 have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas during the protests. The government says 600 police officers have also been injured.
Throughout the protests, Erdogan has struck a defiant tone, vowing to press ahead with the Taksim redevelopment plans, dismissing the protesters as extremists and the protests as undemocratic plots to topple his government.
He insisted again yesterday that the protests were part of a conspiracy against his government
The protesters “are being used by some financial institutions, the interest rate lobby and media groups to [harm] Turkey’s economy and [scare away] investments,” he said.
“I want everyone there to see the big picture, to understand the game that is being played and I especially invite them to evacuate [Taksim and Gezi Park]. I expect that of them as their prime minister,” he said.
The government said late on Monday that Erdogan would meet with some Gezi Park protesters today, but that it would not allow “illegal” demonstrations to continue.