Water cannon and tear gas used on Turkish protesters
Police enter tent city in park transformed into national symbol of resistance
Protesters in Gezi Park in Istanbul today, ahead of the police onslaught this evening. Photograph: Ed Ou/New York Times
Riot police fired water cannon and tear gas on protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park this evening.
The police intervention came shortly after prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on protesters leading a two-week sit-in in the park to leave - and hours after an announcement by the protesters that they would not relent.
The intervention marked the first time in weeks that police had entered the makeshift tent city in Gezi Park, which has been transformed into a national symbol of resistance.
White smoke billowed skyward as white-helmeted riot police marched inside the park. They tore down protesters’ banners, toppled a communal food stall, and sprayed tear gas over the tents, urging those inside to pull out.
Protesters carried someone away on a stretcher.
According to NTV television, police shouted to the protesters: “This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you. Evacuate.”
In a show of power before thousands of flag-waving party faithful, Mr Erdogan had earlier threatened protesters in a boisterous speech in Sincan, a suburb of the capital Ankara, that is a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party.
Mr Erdogan warned protesters to cheers from the crowd: “I say this very clearly: either Taksim Square is cleared, or if it isn’t cleared then the security forces of this country will know how to clear it.”
A violent police crackdown on what began as an environmental protest over a redevelopment plan at the park has sparked a much broader expression of discontent about Mr Erdogan’s government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian decision-making.
The anger has been fanned because riot police have at times used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse mostly peaceful protesters. Five people, including a police officer, have died and thousands of people have been injured, denting Mr Erdogan’s international reputation.
Mr Erdogan, who was elected with 50 per cent of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations by protesters and points to his strong support base.
A second pro-government rally is planned for tomorrow in Istanbul, though Mr Erdogan has previously said the rallies were not designed as “an alternative” to the demonstrations at Gezi Park, but part of early campaigning for local elections next March.
Today Mr Erdogan lashed out at what he called the “plot” behind the biggest street protests in his 10-year tenure.
“Over the last 17 days, I know that in all corners of Turkey, millions and billions have prayed for us,” Mr Erdogan said, as he moved about the stage. “You saw the plot that was being carried out, the trap being set.” He said his supporters represented the “silent masses”.
“You are here, and you are spoiling the treacherous plot, the treacherous attack!” he said, insisting unspecified groups both inside and outside Turkey had conspired to mount the protests centred on Istanbul — and that he had the documents to prove it.
The crowd chanted in response: “Stand straight, don’t bow, the people are with you!”
In his speech, he focused on some protesters who have clashed with polices — at times by throwing stones and firebombs.
“There is no breaking and burning here, we are people of love,” Mr Erdogan said. “If people want to see the real Turkey, they should come here to Sincan.”
Mr Erdogan already has offered to defer to a court ruling on the legality of the government’s contested park redevelopment plan, and floated the possibility of a referendum on it. But concessions over the park seemed not to be enough.
Earlier this week Mr, Erdogan ordered Taksim Square to be cleared of protesters. Police moved past improvised barricades on Tuesday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and using water cannons to fend off small groups of demonstrators throwing stones, bottles and firebombs. Tear gas was also fired through the trees into the park, although the protesters were not removed.