ISTANBUL: Riot police stormed Istanbul’s protest square Tuesday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at firework-hurling demonstrators in a fresh escalation of unrest after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet with protest leaders.
Hundreds of police poured into Taksim Square, the epicentre of nearly two weeks of anti-government demos, warning demonstrators to stay away as bulldozers cleared the makeshift barriers erected by protesters after police pulled out of the area on June 1.
The police’s early morning return to the square in armoured cars raised the stakes in the nationwide turmoil, the fiercest challenge yet to Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted government’s decade-long rule.
Smoke filled the area as police doused protesters with tear gas and urged them to return to the adjoining Gezi Park as some protesters, in helmets and gas masks, threw molotov cocktails, fireworks and stones in response.
The police action came just hours after Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Erdogan would meet protest leaders on Wednesday, his first major concession since the trouble began 12 days ago.
“Can you believe that? They attack Taksim, gas us in the morning just after proposing talks with us? What kind of leader is that?” said Yulmiz, 23, after waking up to the clashes in his tent in Gezi Park.
“We won’t abandon Gezi, they can send thousands of policemen, he vowed. “I am not afraid of their water cannon, it’ll be my first shower in three days.”
The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on May 31 on a campaign to save Gezi Park from redevelopment.
The trouble spiralled into mass displays of anger against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian, injuring nearly 5,000 people and tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Erdogan said on Tuesday that four people, including a policeman, had died. The national doctors’ union confirmed the death toll had climbed from three to four after a protester succumbed to his injuries but gave no further details.
In a speech to lawmakers broadcast live on television, Erdogan urged “sincere” protesters in Gezi Park to pull back, warning that their environmental campaign was being hijacked by “an illegal uprising against the rule of democracy”.
After nearly three hours of confrontations, groups of people milled around Taksim Square largely unopposed, chanting and booing, as police guarded key exit points and set off only the occasional burst of tear gas.
In a symbolic gesture, police removed flags and anti-Erdogan banners from a nearby building and replaced them with a single Turkish flag and a large portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, whose image has also been adopted by the protesters.
But many protesters responded with defiance. “We will fight. We want freedom. We are freedom fighters,” said Burak Arat, a 24-year-old tourism student.
Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu sought to justify the police action, saying the protesters’ takeover of Taksim Square “tarnished the country’s image before the eyes of the world”.
The police would not interfere with the protesters camping out in Gezi Park, he told reporters.
Tens of thousands at the weekend defied Erdogan’s call to end their demonstrations in cities across Turkey after he warned that his patience “has a limit”.
Overnight, trouble flared again in the capital Ankara, where riot police doused hundreds of protesters with tear gas for a third consecutive day.
Turkey’s combative leader has so far responded with defiance to the unrest. On Sunday, he inflamed tensions by staging his own rallies, telling thousands of cheering AKP supporters the demonstrators would “pay a price” for their actions.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics — including journalists, minority Kurds and the military — and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
But the 59-year-old, in power since 2002, remains the country’s favourite politician. His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in the 2011 polls, having presided over strong economic growth.
The premier has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.
Turkey, a country of 76 million at the crossroads of East and West, is a key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies, many of whom have criticised Erdogan’s handling of the crisis.