Taksim Square tense as protest leaders prepare to meet defiant Erdogan

Turkish prime minister tells party colleagues his approach to protest will not change

Protesters run in panic as Turkish riot police returned to Istanbul’s Taksim Square yesterday. Riot police fired volleys of tear gas canisters into the square, the centre of protests against prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, driving thousands into narrow side streets, witnesses said. Photograph: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

The epicentre of anti-government protests sweeping Turkey was tense last night ahead of anticipated talks between prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and 16 protest leaders in Istanbul today.

Renewed clashes broke out on Istanbul’s Taksim Square yesterday when police attempted to force demonstrators from the area. Protesters formed a human chain around the site earlier in the morning but were beaten back by tear gas and water cannon used by riot police.

Mr Erdogan, whose policies have helped transform the Turkish economy over the past 10 years, has struggled to placate the secular elements of Turkish society increasingly unhappy with new restrictions on the sale of alcohol and contraceptives. He has also aggravated demonstrators by claiming those involved were "capulcu" or "looters".

Yesterday he was defiant, telling his Justice and Development Party (AKP) colleagues: "They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen? . . . If you call this roughness, I'm sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change."


Burned fires
Anti-government activists descended on Taksim Square and Gezi Park late last month to stop authorities from cutting down trees as part of a plan to rebuild an Ottoman-era military barracks on the site.

Demonstrators in Taksim Square burned fires in defiance of the hundreds of riot police facing them throughout the day and last night thousands more descended on the square in a show of support for protesters already there.

Omar, a 28-year-old unemployed Istanbuli who has been in Gezi Park for more than a week, said dozens of injured people passed through the park to ambulances in the morning. This reporter saw two people carried to ambulances minutes apart in the afternoon. The sound of tear gas canisters being fired shook many who had become accustomed to the quiet Gezi Park has come to represent.

“We don’t know how long we will stay for. It’s not about Gezi Park any more – the government has pushed us too many times about our freedoms. They want us to be like them, to not drink alcohol, to not smoke. Erdogan has said a lot of things that are not for us. He got 50 per cent in the last election and now he thinks he can do anything,” he said.

Emergency paths
Emergency paths were set up throughout the park to facilitate the quick passage of injured to ambulances.

In the parts of Taksim Square in which police had regained control, municipal workers broke down barriers constructed by demonstrators once they took control of the square on June 1st. A huge clean-up effort was under way on the northern side of the square and in the streets and alleyways down to the Besiktas district. Walls were repainted by city workers and construction machinery cleared up rubble and displaced bricks. Hundreds of riot police rotated out of Taksim relaxed in doorways and on street benches.

In Gezi Park, which thousands of protesters have made a temporary home, the calm and defiance of the past two weeks gave way to panic and anger as riot police pushed closer to the park in the evening.

Business owners around the square have been badly affected by the protests, with many tourists and locals afraid to venture into the area.

Protesters say rubber-coated bullets were used by riot police yesterday morning. In return, some launched stones and petrol bombs at police stationed in two separate areas. Turkish authorities have said they believe the protest movement has been infiltrated by extremist elements.

Partly as a result of the unrest, The Turkish lira has lost nearly 6 per cent of its value since the beginning of May.

Istanbul is also vying to hold the 2020 Olympic Games though International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said last week the protests would have "no negative effects" on the city's bid.

World's largest airport
Earlier this year plans were unveiled to build the world's largest airport in Istanbul, a project that would mean the destruction of about 650,000 trees. Many Turks have been motivated to oppose the Turkish government because vast infrastructural projects have come at a cost to the country's heritage and environment.

“We don’t want Erdogan to resign,” said protester Omar in Gezi Park. “We want him to simply leave the park as it is.”