HUNDREDS of riot police have stormed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, smashing improvised barricades, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in running battles with protesters.
The police raid came on the 12th day of anti-government protests across Turkey and sparked clashes with demonstrators well into the afternoon.
Many other protesters, who have been occupying Taksim for a week, fled to the adjacent Gezi Park, where hundreds have been camping out to stop developers cutting down trees. As police moved in, bulldozers began demolishing barricades and makeshift shelters.
Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared he would not yield to the protesters.
“They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen here? Were we going to kneel down in front of these [people]?” Mr Erdogan said after the action began.
“If you call this roughness, I’m sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won’t change.”
A peaceful demonstration against the Gezi’s redevelopment has become a test of Mr Erdogan’s authority and a rejection of what some see as his autocratic ways.
Mr Erdogan, however, made it clear his patience had run out.
“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,” Mr Erdogan said, speaking in Ankara.
The unrest – which has spread to 78 cities – has been inspired in part by what some see as Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian style of governance and his perceived attempts to impose a religious and conservative lifestyle in a country with secular laws. Mr
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, claims he is committed to Turkey’s secular laws and denies being autocratic. His tough stance on the protests suggest he is not for softening.
“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 said.
By the afternoon, the clashes had extended to the 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 before being taken to ambulances. Others were carried, overcome by tear gas.
Selin Akuner, a volunteer at a makeshift aid station, said around 300 people had sought treatment, mostly for the effects of tear gas. Almost 50 people had been hit by rubber bullets or gas canisters, 12 had head injuries and eight suffered wounds to legs or arms.
The Turkish Human Rights Foundation yesterday raised the number of deaths in more than a week of protests to four. It said a man who had died of a heart attack days ago had been exposed to “too much” tear gas. Two demonstrators and a policeman were also killed and some 5,000 protesters have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas. The government claims 600 police officers have been injured.
Throughout the protests, Mr Erdogan has been defiant, vowing to press ahead with the Taksim redevelopment plans, dismissing the protesters as extremists and the protests as plots to topple his government, which was elected with 50 per cent support in 2011.
Despite the street protests against him, Mr Erdogan remains unrivalled as a leader in his AK party, in parliament and on the streets. Many protesters call for his resignation, but others say they just want to moderate his exercise of power.
He insisted again yesterday the protests were part of a conspiracy against his government.
The demonstrators, he said, “are being used by some financial institutions, the interest rate lobby and media groups to [harm] Turkey’s economy and [scare away] investments.”
He added: “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.”
Mr Erdogan has called for pro-government rallies in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend.
“We are not trying to say look we are greater, we are more populous. We are going to the rallies to ensure that the voice of silent masses is heard,” he said. He is due to meet some Gezi Park protesters today.
In Taksim, police addressed the protesters through loudspeakers, insisting they had no intention of moving into the park, but saying the square needed to be cleared and protest banners taken down.
Police appealed for calm, and said they did not want to use tear gas.
Clashes broke out on the edge of the square between riot police and small groups of demonstrators throwing fireworks, firebombs and stones at the police water cannon lorries, with authorities responding with tear gas and jets of water.
The vast majority of protesters, most of whom remained in the park, were peaceful.
Unsuspecting commuters emerging from the square’s subway station ran for cover, aided through the clouds of acrid smoke by protesters offering them eyewash in spray bottles.
One demonstrator said he joined the Gezi park protest because his cousin was beaten up by police during the initial clampdown.
“I’m here because I’m trying to defend my human rights,” said Kenan Agac. “I’m not against police but his morning they threw tear gas.”
Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said the police operation aimed to remove the posters and banners at Taksim that were damaging Istanbul’s international image.
He said clashes had erupted with “marginal groups” that had thrown fireworks and firebombs, and had set one police vehicle alight.
He reassured people holding peaceful protests at Gezi park that they would not be touched. “I would like to say one more time that there is no question of any [police] intervention at Gezi park,” he said.
But protesters were sceptical.
“Nobody believes the police or the governor when he says police will not interrupt the gathering in Gezi park,” said Tarsu Orzyurt. “We saw policemen telling us ‘come to the street and don’t be afraid,’ then they shoot at us (with tear gas). So nobody believes them.”