Turkish riot police fired tear gas and water cannons yesterday at still defiant demonstrators after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, maintaining their hard line against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country.
Uniformed and plainclothes police officers sealed off Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and adjacent Gezi Park, where crews worked through the night to clear away all traces of a sit-in that started more than two weeks ago and became the focus of the strongest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 10 years.
Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said the square was off-limits to the public for the time being and nobody would be allowed to gather there. However, a spokesman for the protesters vowed the group would retake Gezi Park.
“We will win Taksim Square again and we will win Taksim Gezi Park again,” Alican Elagoz said.
A call went out for another demonstration to be held in Taksim Square yesterday afternoon, but the area was within a tight police cordon, with passers-by subjected to identity checks and bag searches.
Erdogan, who has repeatedly insisted that the protests were part of a nebulous plot by bankers and foreign media to destabilize Turkey, was to deliver a speech at a political rally in an area of Istanbul about 10km from the square.
A speech in the capital, Ankara, on Saturday before the raid was attended by thousands of supporters, who cheered him as he warned protesters that security forces “know how to clear” the area.
The protests began as an environmental sit-in to prevent a development project at Gezi Park, but anger over a violent crackdown there quickly spread to dozens of cities and spiraled into a broader expression of discontent with what many say is Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian decisionmaking.
He vehemently denies the charge, pointing to the strong support base that helped him win a third consecutive term with 50 percent of the vote in 2011. The protests have left at least four people dead and more than 5,000 injured, denting Erdogan’s international reputation.
In clashes that lasted through the night and into the morning in Istanbul, protesters set up barricades and plumes of tear gas rose in the streets. Television footage showed police detaining medical personnel who had been helping treat injured protesters, leading them away with their hands cuffed.
Riot police also entered a shopping mall in an upscale neighborhood of central Istanbul, apparently searching for protesters.
In Ankara, police ratcheted up the pressure in the early afternoon, firing water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas at central Kizilay Square. At least four people were injured. Earlier, police had dispersed hundreds who tried to hold a memorial service for a protester who died of injuries sustained in a nearby police crackdown nearby on June 1.
As a water cannon trucks sped into the Ankara square, four men ripped off the Turkish flags dangling off the sides of some vehicles. One of the men kissed a flag, clutched it to his breast and wheeled around to shake a fist at the truck’s crew, shouting: “You don’t deserve this.”
In Saturday’s raid, hundreds of white-helmeted riot police swept through Gezi Park and Taksim Square at dusk, firing canisters of acrid gas. Thousands of peaceful protesters, choking on the fumes and stumbling among the tents, put up little physical resistance.
“We condemn the police assault with rubber bullets, intense tear gas and sound bombs on Gezi Park at a time where the park was populated with women, children and the elderly,” said Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protesters.
As police cleared the area, many protesters ran into nearby hotels for shelter. A stand-off developed at a luxury hotel on the edge of the park, where police opened up with water cannons against protesters and journalists outside before throwing tear gas at the entrance, filling the lobby with white smoke.
As the gas settled, bulldozers moved into the park, scooping up debris, while workmen tore down the tents, food centers and library the protesters had set up.
Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, told NTV the sit-in had to end.
“They had made their voice heard ... Our government could not have allowed such an occupation to go on until the end,” he said.