ISTANBUL: Thousands of protesters in Istanbul were celebrating victory early Sunday after police withdrew from the square at the centre of one of the largest demonstrations against Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government.
Rights groups denounced police violence, with Amnesty International saying that there had been two deaths, while Turkey’s Western allies Britain and the United States called on the government to show restraint.
Taksim Square has become the epicentre of demonstrations that have left dozens injured — hundreds according to Amnesty, which also said some protesters had been left blinded by the tear gas used by police.
Late on Saturday however, the protesters danced and sang in the square after the police pull-back, some even launching fireworks in celebration.
“Government, resign!” protesters shouted as the police retreated.
“We are here Tayyip, where are you?” they chanted, taunting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
What began as an outcry against a local development project has snowballed into a broader protest against what critics say is the government’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.
Since the first clashes on Friday, the unrest has spread to other cities across the country.
On Saturday, police in Ankara blocked a group of demonstrators from marching on parliament and the prime minister’s office.
Erdogan conceded in a speech that there may have been some cases of “extreme” police action.
But he added: “I call on the protesters to stop their demonstrations immediately.”
The interior ministry said legal action would be taken against police officers who had acted “disproportionately.”
Erdogan was speaking as clashes raged for a second day at Taksim Square, a popular tourist destination and traditional rallying site in Istanbul.
“It is true that there have been some mistakes, extremism in police response,” Erdogan added.
The Turkish premier nevertheless vowed to push forward with controversial plans to redevelop the square — the issue that sparked the protests.
Down in the square the mood was equally defiant.
“We are still ruled by a prime minister who thinks people are lambs and declares himself the sultan,” said 19-year-old law student Batuhan Kantas, sitting exhausted on the ground.
Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul said the protests had reached a “worrisome level” and called for restraint on both sides.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said that 53 citizens and 26 police officers had been injured across the country. One of the injured civilians was in intensive care unit at an Istanbul hospital, he said.
The minister also said police had detained 939 protesters in over 90 demonstrations in 48 cities, though some had later been released.
Officials said a dozen people were being treated in hospitals.
But Amnesty International spoke of reports of two deaths and more than a thousand injured, although there was no official confirmation of those figures.
Amnesty’s Europe director John Dalhuisen said police excesses in Turkey had become routine.
“But the excessively heavy-handed response to the entirely peaceful protests in Taksim has been truly disgraceful,” he added.
Human Rights Watch also suggested the real casualty figure was much higher than the official figures. One protester had lost an eye after police shot him with a plastic bullet, the group reported.
The US State Department called on Turkey to uphold “fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing”.
“We urge authorities in Turkey to exercise restraint and not to use tear gas indiscriminately,” the British foreign office tweeted on Saturday.
The Istanbul protest began as a peaceful sit-in at Gezi park across the iconic square.
The demonstrators had been preventing workers from razing some the park’s 600 trees, the last patch of green in the commercial area, to make way for the restoration of Ottoman era military barracks. Residents fear that the barracks will be turned into a shopping mall.
But the demonstration soon took a violent turn, with police firing rounds of tear gas to disperse the protesters.
“We were sitting there around the square and reading a press statement when the police came toward us with riot vehicles, spraying gas,” said one demonstrator, 34-year-old Burak Ozbey.
He said his friend had to undergo a second brain operation after she was hit in the head on Friday by a gas cannister and remained in critical condition.
Local media reported that Istanbul police were running short of tear gas and had been warned to use it sparingly.
Clashes raged overnight Friday to Saturday with thousands of people marching through the city, some banging pots and pans as residents shouted support from the windows.
Others held up cans of beer in defiance of a recent alcohol law by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that will restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol.
Erdogan’s populist government is regularly accused of trying to make the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country more conservative.