ISTANBUL // Turkish police on Saturday stormed an Istanbul park at the heart of more than two weeks of anti-government unrest, hours after demonstrators in the park rejected a demand by the prime minister to leave the area.
Police in riot gear, backed by water cannons and tear gas, moved into Gezi Park shortly before 9pm. The park had been occupied by demonstrators since May 31.
The sweep marked the first time in weeks that police had entered the makeshift tent city in Gezi Park, which has been transformed into a national symbol of resistance. White smoke billowed skyward as a phalanx of white-helmeted riot police marched inside the park. They tore down protesters' banners, toppled a communal food stall, and sprayed tear gas over the tents - urging those inside to pull out.
Protesters carried someone away on a stretcher.
The park with its hundreds of tents appeared to be deserted shortly afterwards with police officers walking through the columns of tents.
The news channel NTV said most of the demonstrators, numbering in their thousands at the time of the raid, had retreated towards the northern exit of the park and that there had been several injured. Police officers cordoned off the southern entrance of the park towards Taksim Square.
Turkey's semi-official news agency Anadolu reported that protesters had completely abandoned the park. Television footage showed dismantled tents in the park.
Taksim Solidarity, a group representing many of the park occupiers, said police had taken the park "using a lot of tear gas and water cannon" and that demonstrators were retreating in a northern direction.
According to NTV television, police shouted to the protesters: "This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you - Evacuate."
The raid followed a speech by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the capital Ankara, in which he said police "know how to clear" the area, adding the protests were being led by "terrorists and illegal organisations" bent on thwarting Turkey's rise.
Mr Erdogan said he wanted the Gezi Park protesters to go home. "If Gezi Park is not cleared, this country's security forces know how to clear it," he said.
After a meeting with demonstrators, Mr Erdogan said on Friday that the government was prepared to shelve a construction plan for the park that triggered the unrest on May 31. Five people have died and more than 7,000 have been injured in clashes between the police and protesters in several Turkish cities since then.
But Taksim Solidarity rejected Mr Erdogan's offer and said demonstrators would stay in the park. In a sign of good will, protesters yesterday had begun dismantling a barrier made of metal bars, damaged cars and construction material at the entrance of Gezi Park.
Taksim Solidarity said it would continue to protest against what the group regards as efforts by the Erdogan government to push through policies that damage the environment and to force conservative values on the secular Turkish republic.
"As Taksim Solidarity, we will continue our vigil for our park, our city, our living space, our private space, our freedoms and our future," the statement said. It said the protest movement against Mr Erdogan had become "stronger, more organised and more hopeful" in recent weeks.
But Ziya Meral, a London-based academic and Turkey analyst, said the protest movement had to find a new focus after forcing Mr Erdogan to put the construction project on ice.
"Every protest has a healthy threshold to reach, a line of what it can achieve or mean," Mr Meral said on Twitter. "Gezi has reached that now." He said the movement should launch "focused initiatives to keep the government accountable on what happened and should happen".
* With additonal reporting by Associated Press