ISTANBUL: Small groups of anti-government protesters returned to an Istanbul square Wednesday after a night of heavy clashes with police, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with protest representatives to calm tensions.
After a day of retreating to Gezi Park, pockets of protesters began re-appearing in nearby Taksim Square, the epicentre of nearly two weeks of nationwide unrest. Riot police backed by armoured water cannon trucks looked on but there were no fresh confrontations as evening fell.
Several hundred lawyers marched on the square to object to the brief detention of over 70 colleagues a day earlier who had protested against Tuesday’s violence.
They had been angered by the police operation in which officers fired tear gas and jets of water at tens of thousands of demonstrators, some of whom hurled back fireworks and molotov cocktails.
Thousands of lawyers also took to the streets of the capital Ankara.
Erdogan, meanwhile, held his first talks with some of the protest leaders, in his first conciliatory gesture since the trouble began.
But many demonstrators said the unexpected crackdown on Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since June 1, had made them lose faith in any dialogue.
“We don’t accept it,” said Gezi Park protester Anessa, a 29-year-old photographer, complaining that the government had cherry-picked the groups invited to the meeting.
The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on May 31 on a campaign to save Gezi Park from redevelopment, spiralling into mass displays of anger against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Four people, including a policeman, have died in the unrest and nearly 5,000 demonstrators have been injured, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Erdogan has taken a tough line on the demonstrators, many of whom are young and middle-class. On Tuesday, he warned his patience had run out.
“We won’t show any more tolerance,” he told cheering lawmakers from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.
Hours later, Taksim Square resembled a battleground as police fired massive volleys of tear gas, sending the large crowd scrambling as they chanted “Erdogan, resign!” and “Resistance!”
Cat-and-mouse games continued into the night and similar scenes played out in Ankara.
— ‘Democratic maturity’ —
While expectations were low for a quick resolution to the conflict, President Abdullah Gul said Erdogan’s meeting with demonstrators was a sign of the country’s “democratic maturity”.
“People take to the streets here like in the most developed countries in Europe,” he said, adding that he was confident Turkey would “overcome the trouble”.
Police did not intervene in Gezi Park overnight, where volunteers offered first aid to victims of the clashes, though many protesters abandoned their tents after clouds of acrid smoke drifted in from Taksim. Volunteers said dozens had been inju
On Wednesday, the scene in the park was more subdued than on previous days, when a carnival-like atmosphere reigned, but law student Fulya Dagli, 21, said the Taksim Square crackdown had made protesters more determined.
“People are learning not to be scared of the government. That’s something we gained and can’t give up again.”
In a clear sign that police had reclaimed Taksim Square, they hung two massive Turkish flags from a nearby building as well as a large portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, whose image has also been adopted by the protesters.
Confident in his enduring popularity, Erdogan, in power since 2002, has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.
His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.
The first campaign rallies will be staged in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend and are expected to gather tens of thousands of party faithful.
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.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Erdogan to show “engagement not antagonism” in his dialogue with the protesters.
“This is an important moment for Turkey. A chance for it to renew its commitment to European values,” she said.
Turkey has long aspired to join the EU but efforts have stalled, with concerns over its human rights record a key stumbling block.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the images of demonstrators being chased down by riot police were “disturbing”.