TURKISH police began to retreat from a central Istanbul square yesterday, taking away barricades and allowing in tens of thousands of protesters in an apparent move to end tensions from two days of anti-government protests.
Some protesters hurled objects at withdrawing officers and police vehicles, prompting officers to fire several rounds of tear gas to push back the crowds and resumed pulling out of Taksim Square, the private Dogan news agency reported. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the protesters threw fireworks at police.
Earlier, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on demonstrators to end their protest, but remained defiant. He said the government would press ahead with the redevelopment plans at Taksim that sparked the demonstrations.
In a televised speech, Erdogan said police may have used tear gas excessively while confronting protesters and said this would be investigated. But he said the protesters did not represent the majority and accused them of raising tensions.
The protests grew out of anger at heavy-handed police tactics on Friday to break up a peaceful sit-in by people trying to protect a park in Taksim square from government plans to revamp the area. Officials say the plans include building a shopping mall and the reconstruction of a former Ottoman army barracks.
The park demonstration turned into a wider protest against Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and spread to other Turkish cities despite the court decision to temporarily halt the demolition of the park. A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police.
At Taksim, protesters chanted slogans against Erdogan’s government and called on him to resign. In the capital, Ankara, police clashed with protesters who gathered at a park close to Erdogan’s office.
Police clashed yesterday with several groups of youths trying to reach Taksim, the city’s main hub and shopping centre. Some threw stones at police.
A few thousand people marched along the Bosphorus Bridge from the Asian shore of the city, toward Taksim, on the European side, but were met with pressurised water and tear gas that filled the air in a thick cloud.
Police detained a group of protesters who ran into a hotel to shelter from the gas.
They also prevented a rally in central Ankara, near a building housing Erdogan’s office, firing tear gas as people started to gather.
The leader of Turkey’s pro-secular, main opposition party called on Erdogan to immediately withdraw police from Taksim.
“Show us that you are the prime minister, pull back your police,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said. Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, said hundreds of people in several cities were injured in the police crackdown and a few hundred people were arrested.
The Dogan news agency said 138 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul, with some reports of six losing eyes after being hit by tear gas canisters.
The protest was seen as a demonstration of the anger that had already been building toward Turkish police who have been accused of using inordinate force to quash demonstrations and of firing tear gas too abundantly, including at this year’s May Day rally.
There is also resentment from mainly pro-secular circles toward the prime minister’s Islamic-rooted government and toward Erdogan himself, who is known for his abrasive style. He is accused of adopting an increasingly uncompromising stance and showing little tolerance of criticism.
In a surprise move last week, the government passed legislation curbing the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks, alarming secularists. Many felt insulted when Erdogan defended the move by calling people who drink “alcoholics”.
“The use of [tear] gas in such proportions is unacceptable,” Turkdogan said. “It is a danger to public health and as such is a crime. Unfortunately, there isn’t a prosecutor brave enough to stand up to police.
“The people are standing up against Erdogan who is trying to monopolise power and is meddling in all aspects of life.”
An influential Turkish business group yesterday criticised the force used on the protesters and urged more government tolerance.
“The disproportionate force used against… the protests have not only harmed the public conscience, they have had demoralising effect on any efforts over reconciliation,” said a statement from Tusiad, representing Turkey’s leading industrialists.