ISTANBUL: Riot police stormed an Istanbul protest square Tuesday, firing volleys of tear gas at firework-hurling demonstrators after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he had “no more tolerance” for the mass demos against his Islamic-rooted government.
Taksim Square turned into a battle scene as darkness fell, clouds of acrid smoke filling the square as police clashed with thousands of protesters chanting “Erdogan, resign!” and “Resistance!”, in a fresh escalation of 12 days of deadly nationwide unrest.
Several small fires raged and AFP reporters saw at least a dozen injured.
Police returned to Taksim, the epicentre of the protests, in the early morning for the first time since pulling out more than a week ago. Throughout the day, they fought hours-long battles with groups of demonstrators, some of whom hurled stones, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
Police also brought in bulldozers to clear barricades erected by demonstrators.
In the capital Ankara, which has seen several nights of violence, crowds again took to the streets, angrily banging pots and pans.
The early morning assault on Taksim Square surprised protesters, many of whom were dozing in nearby Gezi Park, because it came just hours after Prime Minister Erdogan said he would meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, his first major concession since the trouble began.
But the premier made no mention of the olive branch Tuesday and resumed his tough stance against the demonstrators who have put up the biggest challenge yet to his decade-long rule.
“This episode is now over. We won’t show any more tolerance,” the premier told cheering lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.
“We won’t abandon Gezi,” 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, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Erdogan said on Tuesday that four people, including a policeman, had died in the unrest. Nearly 5,000 people have been injured.
— ‘Cold-blooded and determined’ —
In a rousing speech to lawmakers, 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”.
In a symbolic gesture, police removed anti-Erdogan banners from a building overlooking Taksim 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.
Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu sought to justify the intervention, saying the protesters’ takeover of Taksim Square “tarnished the country’s image before the eyes of the world”, and assured demonstrators police would not storm Gezi Park.
Blaming the conflict on “marginal groups”, he added later: “There are serious clashes between them and our security forces now. I kindly ask our people to leave the square.”
“We will be cold-blooded and determined,” he told reporters.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics — including journalists, minority Kurds and the military — and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the mainly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.
But the 59-year-old, in power since 2002, remains the country’s most popular politician. His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, 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.
The first campaign rallies will be staged in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend and are expected to gather tens of thousands of party faithful.
More than 70 lawyers were arrested in Istanbul after gathering at a city courthouse to object to the police operation, the Contemporary Lawyers’ Association said.
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 them have criticised Erdogan’s handling of the crisis.