x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Istanbul streets erupt in biggest riots in years

New street clashes flare after prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan deploys security forces to break up demonstration in park. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), and his wife, Emine, greet supporters during a rally in Istanbul.
The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), and his wife, Emine, greet supporters during a rally in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // New street clashes between police and protesters erupted in Turkey yesterday as the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he was doing his "duty" in deploying security forces to break up the occupation of a park in Istanbul by demonstrators, triggering the biggest riots Istanbul has seen in years.

Officers yesterday cordoned off Gezi Park and the adjacent Taksim Square, the epicentre of more than two weeks of anti-government protests, and fired tear gas to prevent thousands of defiant protesters from returning to rekindle demonstrations.

Across the city, in Istanbul's Kazlicesme district, thousands of people gathered for a campaign-style rally of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the prime minister sought to galvanise his supporters after weeks of anti-government protests.

Speaking to his supporters, Mr Erdogan recalled telling interior ministry officials: "You are going to clear Gezi Park. We have reached an end. We cannot stand it anymore.' And as you know, yesterday the operation was carried out, and it was cleared."

"I did my duty as prime minister," he said. "Otherwise there would be no point in my being in office."

The protests exposed deep rifts within Turkish society over the role of Mr Erdogan- the protesters accuse him of authoritarian tendencies, but he still enjoys the support of a significant base.

Municipal workers repaired flower beds in Gezi Park yesterday and used water hoses to clear away the remnants of a tent city occupied by hundreds of demonstrators until it was raided on Saturday.

Taksim Solidarity, a group representing some of the protesters at Gezi Park, said yesterday that several hundred people had been wounded during the police operation, 150 of whom had to be treated in hospital.

Following the raid on the park, street battles were fought in in Istanbul's centre and periphery until the early hours of yesterday, and thousands of protesters blocked major motorways during the night. Fires still smouldered on the streets of Okmeydani district yesterday, four kilometres from Taksim Square, and a burnt car partially blocked a main road.

North of Gezi Park, police in riot gear again battled groups of protesters in Elmadag district. At least one man was arrested, television footage showed. There were also clashes in a street south of the park in the afternoon.

In Ankara, which has also seen anti-government protests, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators gathering to commemorate the death of Ethem Sarisuluk, a young man hit in the head by police ammunition during clashes in the capital on June 1.

Five people have died and more than 7,000 have been injured in nationwide unrest that grew out of a local protest in Gezi Park but mushroomed into the biggest challenge to Mr Erdogan's 10- year rule.

Ahead of Mr Erdogan's rally yesterday, both the government and the protest movement hardened their positions.

Egemen Bagis, the minister for European affairs, said that everyone found near Gezi Park would be treated as a "terrorist".

Huseyin Avni Mutlu, Istanbul's governor, yesterday warned demonstrators that security forces would break up all protest marches.

"We will not allow any gatherings in Taksim and surrounding areas," he said. But the protest movement vowed it would not give up and called on its supporters to march towards Taksim Square again.

"The fight continues," Taksim Solidarity said yesterday.

Two Turkish trade union federations with a combined membership of around 400,000 also said yesterday that they would begin a general strike today in support of the protests.

According to the Turkish Medical Association, police arrested and handcuffed a doctor and a medical student who helped protesters suffering from the effects of tear gas after the Gezi Park raid on Saturday. The association accused authorities of launching a "witch hunt".

As tensions built up again, demonstrators gathering at a police cordon around Taksim Square yesterday said they felt betrayed by the government because the raid on the park began shortly after Mr Erdogan gave protesters 24 hours to leave the area.

"At the of the time of the attack, many parents and even grandparents of protesters were in the park because they wanted to visit their children and grandchildren there," said Tolga Gocen, 45, a painter who took part in the protests and carried a helmet, gas mask and a Turkish flag.

Critics accused Mr Erdogan of taking a tough line to please his conservative voters, without taking the opinions of other sections of Turkish society into account.

"For this government, there is no one except its own voters," Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, an actor and member of a group of artists and demonstrators that met Mr Erdogan in recent days to find a way out of the crisis, said on Twitter.

Huseyin Celik, the AKP's spokesman, told the Anadolu news agency yesterday that he saw hostile foreign forces behind the unrest.

"All this was written in a script and this script has been put into reality by someone," he said. Mr Celik made his comments after Yeni Safak, a pro-government Turkish daily, reported that the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute had discussed a scenario for an "uprising in Istanbul" last February.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from the Associated Press