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After facing police, protesters face Erdogan

The premier again called on protesters to go home and hinted at possible police action against occupiers of Gezi Park next to Taksim, where the protests began and where hundreds of activists remain.

Protesters help one another during clashes with riot police in Istanbul's Taksim square on Tuesday.
Protesters help one another during clashes with riot police in Istanbul's Taksim square on Tuesday.

ISTANBUL // Turkish riot police used water cannon and tear gas yesterday to retake Taksim Square in Istanbul after an 11-day occupation by demonstrators, raising tensions ahead of their meeting with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today.

Some protesters threw petrol bombs at police as bulldozers began demolishing their barricades and makeshift shelters.

Mr Erdogan again called on protesters to go home and hinted at possible police action against occupiers of Gezi Park next to Taksim, where the protests began and where hundreds of activists remain.

Locals and environmentalists occupied the park on May 31 to oppose the government's redevelopment plan but what began as a small rally mushroomed into a nationwide movement against what protesters see as Mr Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism.

The "Taksim Solidarity" group, which promotes peaceful resistance to the government's Gezi Park development, struck a defiant tone yesterday, saying it had no plans to leave the park.

"Gezi Park is not an area of occupation," Mr Erdogan told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a televised address. "I invite all those who are sincere to withdraw" from the park, he said.

"This business is over now," Mr Erdogan said. "From now on, there will be no more patience."

But there was no sign of demonstrators leaving the area and of a possible solution to the underlying conflict. Activists called for a fresh demonstration on Taksim Square, and the numbers of protesters swelled in the evening.

Police withdrew from the park and from Taksim after street battles on June 1. Since then, the area has been under the control of protesters. Different political groups built booths on the square and put banners on a monument to Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as well as on a nearby cultural centre.

As police moved back on to the square in the early hours yesterday, announcements over loudspeakers said officers were there to clear barricades from the streets around the square and to take down banners from the Ataturk monument and the cultural centre. Coming several hours before Mr Erdogan's warning, the announcements also said police would not attack Gezi Park.

"Don't throw stones, and we don't shoot gas," the announcement said, as some protesters hurled stones and firebombs at the security forces. A police vehicle caught fire and burnt out. Authorities later said 70 members of a small leftist party accused of having organised the attacks on the police had been arrested.

Having cleared the square, police moved towards the entrance of the park towards midday, with television footage showing that some officers ventured a few metres into the park. A tense stand-off ensued, with protesters forming a human chain to prevent a possible onslaught on the park, and the officers eventually withdrew.

On the fringes of Taksim Square outside the park, police and demonstrators clashed sporadically throughout the day.

"The police say they only want to take down the banners, but this is not true," said Ozgur Peynirci, 21, a law student who has taken part in the Gezi Park protests for days. "I think they will attack the park in the next one or two days."

In another sign of growing tensions, police yesterday detained a group of about 50 lawyers who shouted slogans in support of the protesters at Istanbul's palace of justice.

The protests have grown into the biggest challenge to Mr Erdogan's 10-year rule. The prime minister said yesterday that four people had been killed so far, one victim more than previously known. It was not immediately clear where the death occurred. Up to 5,000 people have been injured in countrywide clashes.

Many demonstrators say they feel alienated by the government's efforts to push through a conservative political agenda that includes restrictions on the sale of alcohol.

Mr Erdogan said yesterday that his government was analysing the protest movement and was "studying events of the last two weeks in every dimension". But he insisted it would not tolerate violence and accused the opposition of inciting the street protests.

The prime minister is to meet representatives of the protest movement in Ankara today. News reports said Mr Erdogan would meet a delegation of 19 academics, students, city planners, artists and environmentalists.

Taksim Solidarity, a group represents protesters who are not affiliated with other organisations or political parties, yesterday denied that it had asked for meeting with Mr Erdogan.

"No one can talks of democracy and dialogue in a place that is under police blockade," the group said in a statement, referring to security forces in front of Gezi Park.

It said protesters would continue their occupation of the park. "We are here and we are not going anywhere," it said.

The group wants the government to cancel the building project in Gezi Park, to fire officials responsible for the harsh police action against demonstrators in the past two weeks, free all activists detained in connection with the protests, and guarantee the right to free assembly and free speech.

tseibert@thenational.ae