ISTANBUL: Thousands of striking workers took to the streets of Turkey’s cities on Wednesday, loudly joining calls for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step down as mass protests against his rule intensified.
Bellowing to the din of drums and wailing Turkish pipes, teachers, doctors, bank staff and others marched in a sea of red and yellow labour union flags in the capital Ankara and in Istanbul, where they converged on Taksim Square, the cradle of nearly a week of violent clashes.
“Taksim, resist, the workers are coming!” they chanted, demanding the resignation of Erdogan, who has dismissed the protesters as “extremists” and “looters” as he faces down the biggest challenge to his decade in power.
Two people have been killed in the six days of unrest, doctors and officials say, and hundreds have been arrested.
Fresh clashes erupted overnight, with police firing tear gas and water cannon on protesters in major cities including Istanbul and reportedly arresting 25 people in Izmir for “misleading and libellous” Twitter posts.
“Erdogan needs to apologise, resign and go to court for the things he has done, for the excessive force,” said Tansu Tahincioglu, a 26-year-old web entrepreneur in Istanbul.
“Before, people were afraid to express their fear publicly. Even tweets are a problem. But now they are not afraid,” he told AFP.
The violent police response to the protests has hardened the movement, drawing in the labour unions that represent hundreds of thousands of Turks.
Two major trade union federations, KESK and DISK, launched two-day strikes from Tuesday in solidarity with the street protesters.
“The ordinary workers and the educated are all together to defend a better Turkey, where there is equality and freedom,” said Arhan, a 45-year-old doctor, dressed like other demonstrators in a white shirt and cap.
Marching with his wife to Taksim Square, he said he did not believe Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc when he apologised on Tuesday to people injured at the start of the protests.
“They play good cop and bad cop, but they have the same aim. They want to tame us,” said Arhan, who would not give his second name for fear of getting in trouble with his employer.
In the capital Ankara, union workers unfurled banners addressing Erdogan, reading: “This nation will not bow to you!”
Forced to deal with the unrest while Erdogan is on an official visit to North Africa, Arinc on Tuesday promised that the government had “learnt its lesson”, but protesters ignored his plea to call off the demonstrations.
The premier, who was due in Tunisia on Wednesday, is accused of seeking to force conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.
In the western city of Izmir, police detained at least 25 people for posting on Twitter, the Anatolia news agency reported early Wednesday, after Erdogan accused the microblogging site of spreading “lies”.
Protesters rely heavily on social media to organise demonstrations. They have complained about a lack of coverage of the crisis by the mainstream media.
— List of demands —
In a new bid to ease tensions, the deputy prime minister met on Wednesday with leaders of civil groups, including the movement whose initial protest sparked the nationwide demonstrations — a campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from redevelopment.
In the meeting, protest representatives urged the government to fire the police chiefs of Istanbul and Ankara and other cities where security forces used excessive force to quell the unrest.
They also demanded Ankara release all the arrested demonstrators and ban police from tear gassing demonstrators.
Two young men have been killed in the clashes so far, officials and medics say, and rights groups say thousands have been injured. The government puts the figure at around 300.
Over 1,700 people have been arrested, according to the most recent official estimate, with many already released.
The United Nations, the United States and other Western partners have voiced concern about reports of heavy-handed police action.
NATO-member Turkey is a key regional ally for the United States and has backed it notably in opposing President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
Sitting at the crossroads of East and West, Turkey has long aspired to join the European Union, which sets strict requirements on human rights for prospective members.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took power in 2002 and has won three elections in a row.
But opponents accuse him of repressing critics and of pushing conservative Islamic policies such as religious education reforms and a law curbing the sale of alcohol.
Erdogan told protesters they should wait to express their views in elections next year, when observers expect him to run for president.