Riot police drove protesters from a central Istanbul square and nearby Gezi Park after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he wanted to clear the area before his party meeting in the city today.
Clouds of tear gas hung over the area and at least 44 people were injured after the police moved into the park for the first time in more than two weeks. Protests had begun in Gezi over plans to redevelop the park, and broadened into a wider movement targeting Erdogan’s government after images emerged of police tear-gassing a small group of demonstrators.
Erdogan said at a rally in Ankara yesterday that he was issuing his final warning to protesters to leave the area, saying the country would express its will at elections in eight months. In a speech before tens of thousands of supporters, he accused the protesters of insulting his police, drinking alcohol in a mosque and attacking headscarved women. He also said he’d reveal proof that the protests were coordinated by “a network of treachery” inside and outside Turkey.
“We have a meeting in Istanbul tomorrow,” Erdogan said, referring to a “Respect the National Will” rally planned today. “I’m saying this very clearly, if Taksim Square is not emptied out, this country’s security forces know how to empty it out.”
Police wearing gas masks and riot gear warned protesters to leave at around 8 p.m., then formed cordons to block some of the main streets leading into Taksim Square adjoining Gezi Park. They sprayed pressurized water cannons to drive crowds away from the square before entering Gezi Park, where thousands of people have gathered each night to protest. Protesters had set up a community of tents to prevent the park’s redevelopment.
Construction machines started removing barricades around the square and municipal trucks cleared up debris, including some of the remaining tents. Journalists trying to enter Gezi Park during the operation were slapped by plainclothes police and pushed away. Later, police fired tear gas at groups of journalists to keep them from re-entering Taksim Square.
Protesters fleeing the park took refuge in front of the Divan Hotel, owned by Koc Holding, the group of companies run by Turkey’s wealthiest family. Some people were seen being stretchered toward ambulances, one with a head injury. Police encircled a group of demonstrators in front of the hotel who were singing the national anthem, dousing them with water as tear gas was fired to disperse others down adjacent streets.
The Taksim Solidarity group, representing the protesters, had earlier rejected Erdogan’s order to leave and demanded that all protesters arrested during demonstrations that began May 31 be released. At least four people have been killed in clashes with the police during the rallies. The Turkish Medical Association says almost 7,500 have sought medical treatment.
Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said in a press conference after the raid that 44 people were injured in yesterday’s crackdown, none of them seriously. Skirmishes, which were continuing into the early morning, would be finished by tomorrow, he said.
Erdogan stormed out of discussions with representatives of the protesters on June 14 after being told that in addition to the Taksim project, the protests were also about sociological issues, according to Cem Tuzun, a spokesman for the Taksim Solidarity group. Erdogan said that he won 50 percent of the vote at elections in 2011 and didn’t need to be taught sociology, Tuzun said in an interview in Istanbul yesterday.
The unrest has presented Erdogan with one of the biggest challenges since he took office more than 10 years ago, as protesters denounce what they say is the pro-Islamist leader’s autocratic style. The spectacle of tens of thousands of people marching in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, and police using tear gas, water cannons and truncheons against them, has pushed Turkish stocks and bonds down and prompted condemnation from the U.S. and EU.
The government has said there’ll be no redevelopment of Gezi Park until a court rules on the issue, and after that only if the plan is approved in a public vote.
Erdogan says he wants to reconstruct an Ottoman-era barracks near Gezi Park, as well as a new opera house in Taksim in the place of the current Ataturk Cultural Center. An Istanbul court order on June 1 stopped construction of a sidewalk around the park.
The demonstrators say Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government has been emboldened by three successive electoral victories to ignore the views of more secular-oriented Turks who didn’t vote for them. The ruling party received about 50 percent of the vote in 2011, and Erdogan says the rallies that began yesterday are the start of his party’s campaign for next year’s municipal elections.
Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bagis said that anyone entering Taksim Square would be treated by police as a terrorist, according to a report in Hurriyet Daily News today.
Taksim Solidarity said in a statement that tens of thousands of people would march to Taksim. It said yesterday’s police action occurred after the group had met with Erdogan and as it was debating how to continue the protest movement in a democratic and open way.
“It’s not possible to stop this march by the people,” the group said.