Demonstrators retreated from an Istanbul square yesterday after a night of running battles with riot police as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved to crush mass demonstrations against his Islamic-rooted government.
By midday, hundreds of officers armed with riot shields and backed by water cannon trucks lined up along the eastern side of the Taksim Square. Just a stone’s throw away, weary demonstrators huddled in Gezi Park.
Small crowds, mainly commuters and curious passers-by, milled around the area after a large cleanup operation removed all evidence of the unrest, clearing the square of stray tear gas canisters, anti-Erdogan banners and makeshift barricades.
The prime minister was to hold talks with some protest leaders yesterday, but many protesters said the unexpected crackdown on Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since June 1, had made them lose faith in any dialogue.
“We don’t accept it,” said Anessa, a 29-year-old photographer, complaining that the government had cherry-picked the groups invited to the meeting.
Walking around a subdued Gezi Park in the rain, she said the violence only made protesters more determined.
“We are not afraid. We are very angry and we will not stop,” she said.
The nationwide unrest first erupted after police on May 31 cracked down heavily on a campaign to save the park from redevelopment, spiraling into mass displays of anger against Erdogan.
Four people, including a policeman, have died in the unrest. Nearly 5,000 demonstrators have been injured.
Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian, has taken a tough line on the demonstrators, many of them young and middle-class. On Tuesday, he warned his patience had run out.
“We won’t show any more tolerance,” he told cheering lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.
Hours later, Taksim Square resembled a battle scene, with police firing volleys of tear gas to disperse tens of thousands chanting “Erdogan, resign,” and “Resistance.”
Cat-and-mouse games continued into the night, with police firing gas, jets of water and rubber bullets at demonstrators, who hurled back fireworks, bottles and Molotov cocktails.
The capital, Ankara, also saw renewed clashes overnight as riot police used gas, pepper spray and water cannon against thousands of protesters near the US embassy. Some threw rocks in response.
While expectations were low for a quick resolution to the conflict, Turkish President Abdullah Gul yesterday said Erdogan’s meeting with demonstrators was a sign of the country’s “democratic maturity.”
“People take to the streets here like in the most developed countries in Europe,” he said, adding that he was confident Turkey would “overcome the trouble.”
Police did not intervene in Gezi Park overnight, where volunteers offered first aid to victims of the clashes, though many protesters abandoned their tents to escape wafts of tear gas drifting in from Taksim Square.
“This was one of the biggest events in Turkey,” law student Fulya Dagli, 21, said about the overnight clashes as she handed out breakfast in the park. “People are learning not to be scared of the government. That’s something we gained and can’t give up again.”
Turkey is a key strategic partner in the region for the US and other Western allies. Many of them have criticized Erdogan’s handling of the crisis.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle yesterday said the images of demonstrators being chased down by riot police were “disturbing.”
“The Turkish government is sending the wrong message to the country and to Europe,” Westerwelle said, adding that Ankara must do “all in its power” to protect democratic rights.
Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said the unrest was “the first serious test” for Turkey in its long-time bid to join the EU.