Turkish protests shift away from Taksim as clashes enter third day

Two said killed over the weekend; Sunday sees Istanbul mostly calm, with sporadic fights between demonstrators and police

Riot police clashing with protesters in Istanbul on Saturday (photo credit: AP)
Riot police clashing with protesters in Istanbul on Saturday (photo credit: AP)

Isolated clashes were reported in Istanbul early Sunday as anti-government riots that some have attributed to a nascent “Turkish Spring” entered their third day.

The scene at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi park, which had been the focus of protests over the weekend, was calmer after riot police pulled out of the area late Saturday night.

On Saturday, heavy clashes between rioters and police were reported in Ankara, while in Istanbul police fired tear gas at demonstrators who set fires outside the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Protests were also reported in Izmir.

Amnesty International said two people were killed in the clashes. Over 900 people were arrested, according to the Interior Ministry. Medics told Reuters 1,000 people were injured in Istanbul and several hundred more elsewhere in the previous two days of clashes, which were touched off Friday by a police crackdown on a demonstration against the razing of Gezi Park.

On Saturday, police fired tear gas and turned on water cannons at angry demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks and bottles on their march toward Taksim. In an area normally abuzz with tourists, stores were shuttered and protesters fled into luxury hotels for shelter. There were hundreds of arrests and injured.

Turkish authorities later removed barricades and allowed thousands of demonstrators into the square in an effort to calm tension. Sounding defiant even as he bowed to protesters and pulled back police, Erdogan promised to stick to the government’s redevelopment plans — which protesters fear will remove one of the few green spaces in the sprawling city.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül called on the government and security authorities Saturday to act with sensitivity, common sense, and “maturity” to avoid the violent scenes Turkey has witnessed over the last several days, Hurriyet reported.

“Our security forces should pay utmost attention and be proportionate while performing their duties and should not let such distressing images emerge,” Gül added.

The Turkish president said the protests had reached a “worrisome level,” and urged for cooler heads to prevail in order to ease tensions.

“What’s more important is to be able to discuss [issues] in a civilized manner, to be open to dialogue, to be able to lend an ear to different opinions. In a democratic country, reactions should be made in a way that will not allow room for abuse, with common sense and calm. At the same time, officials should also put more effort into lending an ear to different thoughts and concerns,” Gül said.

The Turkish Interior Ministry on Saturday warned that police officers who would be found to have used tear gas abusively would be prosecuted.

“Due legal action will be launched into personnel who are determined to have used disproportionate force,” the ministry said in a statement.

A video posted to YouTube Saturday showed an armored vehicle charging at a crowd, followed by the startled shouts of witnesses.

Some protesters hurled objects at the withdrawing officers and police vehicles, prompting police to fire several rounds of tear gas to push back the crowds and resume pulling out of Taksim Square, the private Dogan news agency reported.

The state-run Anadolu Agency said the protesters threw fireworks at police. According to Today’s Zaman, police unleashed tear gas and water cannons against protesters trying to reach the park on Saturday.

By Sunday morning, Taksim was mostly empty, with scattered groups of people milling around the trash-strewn plaza against a backdrop of prominent signs. NTV television reported that protesters built barricades there to keep police from returning.

The demonstration against the redevelopment of the park adjoining Taksim Square has turned into a wider protest against Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and has spread to other Turkish cities despite a court decision to temporarily halt the demolition of the park. A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted through the night Friday-Saturday.

At Taksim, protesters chanted slogans against Erdogan’s government and called on him to resign.

Erdogan called the protesters a “minority” that was trying to forcefully impose demands, and boasted that he could easily summon a million people for a government rally.

“I am not claiming that a government that has received the majority of the votes has limitless powers… and can do whatever it wants,” Erdogan said in a televised speech.

Istanbul residents on Saturday posted photos and videos of bruised and bloodied protesters, of civilians wearing gas masks and surgical masks to protect them from police offensives, and of security forces using pressurized water and tear gas to keep them in check.

A video, published on Facebook earlier Saturday, shows police firing tear gas canisters at protesters  and young men and women helping each amid swirling clouds of smoke.

A live feed from Taksim Square, showing events as they unfold, has been made available by the Turkish news agency DHA.

On social media, powerful photos from the scenes in Istanbul were being published at breakneck speed.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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