ISTANBUL: Turkish police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon on Saturday as they dispersed several thousand demonstrators who had gathered anew in central Istanbul in the latest flare-up of protests challenging the Islamic-rooted government’s decade-long rule.
Hundreds of riot police backed up by water cannon trucks moved in on protesters who had gathered in Istanbul’s flashpoint Taksim Square, chanting for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step down.
“This is but a start, the battle continues!” the protesters yelled, throwing red carnations in honour of those killed, injured and detained during the demonstrations that shook Turkey for much of June. “It is by resisting that we will prevail!”
Saturday’s demonstration was meant to mark a week since police evicted thousands of people from the adjacent Gezi Park, the epicentre of nationwide protests that shook Turkey, infuriated Erdogan and earned the country harsh criticism from the West.
Following the eviction, the protests fizzled out as the premier claimed victory over “traitors”.
“The people and the AKP (ruling Justice and Development Party) government have foiled the plot… hatched by traitors and their foreign accomplices,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.
“From now on, there will be no question of showing any tolerance to people or organisations who engage in violent acts.”
But on Saturday the violence flared again as police chased protesters fleeing the water cannon in Taksim into the surrounding streets.
In the nearby Beyoglu district riot police repeatedly charged protesters, who pelted them with bottles and rocks, and eventually blanketed the area with tear gas and fired rubber bullets.
On Mis Street the patrons of the thoroughfare’s many bars also rained bottles, glasses, chairs and tables onto a group of advancing officers, who fired a tear gas canister to get away.
Turkey’s crisis began when a small campaign to save Gezi Park’s 600 trees from being razed in a redevelopment project was met with a brutal police response on May 31.
The violence sparked widespread anger and snowballed into mass demonstrations against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Four people have been killed and nearly 8,000 injured in the turmoil, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
Hundreds have also been arrested across the country and at least 46 people have been charged, most of them accused of belonging to “terrorist” groups and destruction of property, according to lawyers groups.
Ankara’s handling of the protests has sparked criticism from the West, leading to a flare of tensions with Germany in particular, with Berlin and Ankara summoning each other’s envoys on Friday in tit-for-tat moves.
We cannot deny the tensions,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Saturday after meeting with the Turkish envoy.
“We have to continue the discussions, we are still in the middle of negotiations.”
The tensions began when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday Turkey’s violent crackdown on the demonstrators had been “much too harsh”.
Several days later, EU member states failed to reach agreement necessary on opening a new negotiating chapter with Turkey, which could have marked an upswing in ties, with Germany and the Netherlands expressing “reservations” at the closed-door talks.
Turkish European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis fumed and placed the blame squarely on Germany, the EU’s top economy with the world’s largest Turkish emigrant community as well as Ankara’s biggest trade partner.
“If Merkel is looking for material for her election campaign, it should not be Turkey,” Bagis told reporters, referring to the general election in Germany slated for September.
Turkey’s membership talks officially started in 2005 but so far only one out of 35 chapters has been closed, mainly due to disagreements over Cyprus, which joined the bloc in 2004, as well as serious German doubts about the bid.
Separately on Saturday, some 80,000 people rallied against Erdogan’s government in the German city of Cologne.