ISTANBUL: Riot police on Friday used tear gas and water cannon to break up an environmental protest on Istanbul’s Taksim Square which spiralled into a wider outcry against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Dozens were injured in the demonstration against plans to raze a park across from the square to build a shopping mall, which turned into a broader showdown as angry protesters chanted: “Government resign!”
A cloud of tear gas blanketed the square after hours of running battles with police and the number of injured earned Turkey a rare rebuke from its US ally.
Thousands of people across the country also poured into the streets in solidarity with the Taksim protesters, a sign of growing anger against Erdogan’s government, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
An Istanbul court ordered the suspension of the construction project late Friday, but it was not immediately clear whether this would lead to the scrapping of the plans.
At Taksim Square several of the injured were left lying on the ground unconscious after police used tear gas and pepper spray on them, while two people were hospitalised with injuries to the head, an AFP photographer witnessed.
In the most severe case, a Turkish national of Moroccan origin had to undergo brain surgery after fractures to her skull, but she was doing well in intensive care, according to governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu.
Mutlu put the number of people being treated in nearby hospitals at 12, but Amnesty International said more than 100 protesters were reportedly injured in the clashes.
Mutlu also said in televised remarks that an investigation was under way and 63 people had been detained for “provoking violence”.
— ‘They are spraying anybody like it is pesticide’ —
“We are concerned about the number of people who were injured when police dispersed protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park,” US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said.
“We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing,” she said.
Two protestors suffered broken arms and several others had minor bone fractures when scaffolding collapsed as they tried to escape the police intervention on the square.
In skirmishes with the police, some of the protesters shouted: “You are killing us!” and hurled rocks at the security forces.
The gas infiltrated the subway and drifted into passing cars as ambulances arrived to carry away those affected.
“They are spraying anybody like it is pesticide,” tweeted one protestor using the handle @blogcuanne. “Kids, babies, the old, tourists, nobody matters.”
The protesters have been trying to prevent workers from razing Taksim Excursion Park, which lies across from the square’s centrepiece, the Ataturk monument.
In place of the park, which is the last stand of trees in the highly commercialised area, the government is planning to restore an Ottoman-era barracks, torn down decades ago, to function as a shopping mall.
Mayor Kadir Topbas said many among the protesters were people who “genuinely care for the trees and the environment”, but that they were being manipulated by those with “political agendas”.
The park is part of a wider construction project that began in November to pedestrianise the zone surrounding the square, a traditional gathering point for rallies and protests as well as a popular tourist destination.
The controversial project is aimed at easing chronic congestion in the roads around the square as well as giving the site a facelift.
But critics say the scheme will turn the square into yet another soulless, concrete commercial zone while driving away residents.
Topbas said there was “a long way to go” yet before actual construction begins but Erdogan said Wednesday that the government would not backtrack.
“Do whatever you want, we have decided,” he said.
Mehmet Baransu, a journalist from the Taraf daily, tweeted that the park protests were not just about the trees, but government’s “fait accompli, I do and you can’t talk” rhetoric.
Thousands have voiced support for the protesters on social media in recent days, while Amnesty International urged Turkey to “halt brutal police repression” and investigate abuse claims.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said the government was looking into the claims of the use of disproportionate force, without elaborating.
The strong public reaction comes just days after a new law by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that would restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol, a move that has angered many youngsters and fuelled anti-government sentiment in the country.
Erdogan’s populist government, in power for over a decade, is often accused of trying to make the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country more conservative.