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Turkish protester killed in clash with police in Antakya raises new fears of mass unrest

A Turkish protester died after police clashed with demonstrators in renewed anti-government protests, stoking fears of a return of the large-scale unrest that shook the country in June.

ISTANBUL // A Turkish protester died after police clashed with demonstrators in renewed anti-government protests, stoking fears of a return of the large-scale unrest that shook the country in June.

Ahmet Atakan, 22, was killed during clashes on Monday night in the southern city of Antakya near the Syrian border, officials said yesterday.

He was among several hundred people in Antakya who took to the streets late on Monday to protest against possible US strikes against Syria, which are supported by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and against a Turkish government project to build a motorway through the wooded premises of a university in Ankara.

Several opposition groups blamed police for his death while the authorities said he died in an accident.

Protesters rallied in Antakya after Atakan's funeral yesterday and clashed with police.

Atakan was the sixth demonstrator to die since early June, when a government construction project in Gezi Park in Istanbul triggered countrywide protests in a challenge to Mr Erdogan's government. A policeman also died during street battles in June.

The violence receded in late June, but several observers have warned of a "hot autumn" of discontent as tensions continue to simmer.

Many Turks are aggrieved by what they say is Mr Erdogan's increasingly autocratic governance and his government's tendency to ignore dissenting voices.

There were also clashes in Istanbul on Monday in which members of a leftist group marched in honour of a protester who has been in a coma since being hit by a police tear-gas cartridge in June.

Protests were held in Ankara against a road project on the grounds of the Mideast Technical University.

The cause of Atakan's death in Antakya remained unknown yesterday, and the case immediately became the subject of bitter accusations between the protest movement and the government. News reports said police clashed with his relatives and protesters near the hospital in Antakya after the death was announced.

Taksim Platformu, an umbrella organisation of the protest movement that was behind the anti-government unrest in June, said Atakan was killed by a police tear-gar cartridge that was fired from close range and hit his head. But authorities in Hatay province, where Antakya lies, said Atakan fell from the roof of a house during the clashes.

Selim Matkap, the head of the Medical Association in Hatay who performed a preliminary autopsy, said yesterday he had not seen any signs that suggested Atakan had fallen from a great height.

Umut Oran, a leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's biggest opposition group, said the government was responsible for the death.

"Any government that kills a 22-year-old young man with gas and then shoots tear gas on the mourning family near the emergency ward is guilty," Mr Oran said.

But Adnan Boynukara, an adviser to the justice minister Sadullah Ergin, said a second autopsy, performed in the city of Adana, concluded that Atakan had died after falling from a great height. According to news reports, tissue samples from the body were to be sent to Istanbul for examination by forensic experts.

Mustafa Varank, an adviser to Mr Erdogan, said on Twitter the protest camp was spreading "false news" about the cause of death.

During the June riots, Turkish police were accused of firing tear gas directly into groups of protesters, instead of aiming over their heads. The interior ministry later instructed police not to use tear gas at a range fewer than 40 metres and not to shoot directly at protesters.

Taksim Platformu, the CHP and other groups yesterday called on supporters to gather in Istanbul and in Ankara in the evening to protest against police violence.

Police units cordoned off Gezi Park and Taksim Square yesterday and prevented thousands protesters from marching onto the square. Reports said some clashes took place in side streets near Taksim Square, with the police using tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd.

Suha Yilmaz, a member of a protest group gathering in Cihangir Park in Istanbul, said he expected tensions to rise further in the coming days and weeks.

"Everybody expected September to become a hot month - and it certainly looks that way," he said, referring to the phrase "hot autumn", used by the media and by politicians to describe possible new incidents of unrest.

"They have started killing people," he said about the police. "They are not taking a step back."

tseibert@thenational.ae

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