x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Erdogan denounces protesters as thousands return to Taksim

Police fired tear gas in Istanbul as prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and president Abdullah Gul took different views on the protests that have rocked the Turkey.

Protesters carry the Turkish flag and shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at Gezi Park near Taksim Square in central Istanbul.
Protesters carry the Turkish flag and shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at Gezi Park near Taksim Square in central Istanbul.

Istanbul // Protesters took to the streets in cities across Turkey again yesterday as the prime minister and president expressed widely differing reactions to the most vehement display of anger at the government in a decade.

Two days after withdrawing from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the main site of protests, police returned and once again used tear gas as thousands of mostly young demonstrators gathered there late yesterday.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, dismissed the four days of street protests as actions organised by extremists and angrily rejected comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings.

"This is a protest organised by extremist elements," Mr Erdogan told reporters before leaving on a four-day trip to North Africa. "We will not give away anything to those who live arm in arm with terrorism."

Mr Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won three general elections since 2002, also blamed the protests on "internal and external" groups bent on harming Turkey, and said the country's intelligence service was working on identifying them.

The president, Abdullah Gul, took a more conciliatory line. "When we speak of democracy, of course the will of the people is above all," he said.

"But democracy does not mean elections alone. There can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways besides elections."

He added: "The views that are well-intentioned have been read, seen and noted and the messages have been received."

The two men could compete against each other next year in Turkey's presidential election.

The first death of a protester was reported yesterday - a 20-year-old man who died in the morning after a car slammed into a crowd of protesters in Istanbul's Umraniye neighbourhood on Sunday, according to Ozdemir Aktan, the president of the Turkish Medical Association.

"We know the protesters were walking and the motorway was blocked by the police. I am not really aware how that happened," Mr Aktan said, adding it was the first confirmed death in the unrest. He was unsure if the driver hit the protesters on purpose or if it was an accident.

Mr Aktan said a protester in Ankara was nearly brain-dead after suffering head trauma.

"The cause of the head trauma is not clear. There is foreign material in the brain, but we are not sure what hit the head. We saw that the police directly aim tear gas at the crowds and the canisters hit people."

Five other people in Istanbul are in intensive care, one in serious condition, he added.

Thousands of protesters, most in their 20s, started to gather in Istanbul's Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park yesterday afternoon.

The protests countrywide were triggered when police used force to break up a sit-in in the park against government plans for building there.

There were far fewer protesters in the square than the approximately 100,000 who gathered there over the weekend, but roads leading to Taksim remained blocked by debris and overturned cars and there was no sign of security forces.

"This protest is not about vandalism and anarchy," said Emre, a 23-year-old protester who asked to be identified by only one name, as he went through the crowds picking up rubbish. "We are just after our basic human rights. We throw out our garbage."

He said the protesters were discussing how much longer to continue their demonstration, but this would likely depend on the reaction of the authorities.

There were rumours that police would try to remove the barricades yesterday night, but the protesters "will not sit here silently," Emre said.

"Tonight is really important because if the police attack us, people will stop going to work and start defending here," he said. "This is not just about a park anymore so it won't end so quickly."

The sentiment was echoed in other cities, including Ankara, the capital, where protesters were reconvening in the central Kizilay district, according to Isil Ozbek, a 30-year-old academic at the city's Bilkent University.

Earlier in the day, police attempted to disperse demonstrators with tear gas and water cannon.

"People want to say to the prime minister we want to live our own lives, please stay away from our lives," she said. "We want to drink alcohol and we want to wear what we want."

She described the police reaction to intense protests the night before as "terrible."

"The police were really angry that they could not go home because of the protesters," Ozbek said. "They were tired, the were accusing the protesters because they could not go home and attacking ruthlessly."



* With additional reporting by the Associated Press