ISTANBUL: Public workers in Turkey launched a two-day strike Tuesday in support of raging anti-government protests as the United States appealed for restraint in the worst political crisis to confront the 10-year-old Islamic-rooted government.
Overnight, riot police in Istanbul and Ankara fired tear gas and water
cannon at protesters who set cars ablaze, hurled stones and bellowed angry slogans in a fifth day of demonstrations that have now cost the lives of two people.
While US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern about excessive
police force, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained defiant, lashing out at “extremists” he blames for the worst anti-government unrest since he first took office in 2002.
A second protester was killed in the southern city of Antakya on Monday,
local officials said, after a young man was killed in Istanbul when a car ploughed into a crowd of demonstrators in Turkey’s largest city on Sunday.
The violence first erupted after police cracked down on a peaceful rally in Istanbul against plans to build over Gezi Park, a rare green spot adjoining the city’s main Taksim Square, but quickly mushroomed into broader protests in dozens of other cities by Turks who accuse the government of pushing conservative Islamic reforms.
The Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions (KESK) launched a two-day
strike from Tuesday over alleged heavy-handed police action in almost a week of clashes that rights group say have left hundreds of people wounded.
“The state terror implemented against entirely peaceful protests is
continuing in a way that threatens civilians’ life safety,” the KESK said in a statement, saying the crackdown showed the Islamic-rooted government’s “enmity to democracy”.
The confederation counts about 240,000 members and the action will likely affect schools, universities and public offices across Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country of 75 million people sitting at the crossroads of east and west.
While Erdogan has largely dismissed the protests, insisting they did not
represent a “Turkish spring,” his ally President Abdullah Gul has been more conciliatory, telling demonstrators that their concerns were being heard.
“The situation (in Turkey) is now calming down… On my return from this
visit, the problems will be solved,” Erdogan said at a press conference in Rabat, where he kicked off a tour of north Africa despite the problems at home.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took power in 2002 and has won two further national votes, has accused “vandals” and opponents including the main opposition Republican People’s Party of having a hand in the protests.
Opponents have accused Erdogan of repressing critics, including
journalists, Kurds and the military, and pushing conservative Islamic policies including religious education reforms and a law curbing the sale of alcohol.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc also sought to ease the concerns of
protesters, saying Turkey’s government “respects and is sensitive towards different lifestyles”.
But the violence showed no signs of abating in the early hours of Tuesday, with thousands of protesters gathered on Taksim square, the heart of the demonstrations, as white fumes hung in the air in surrounding streets.
“Tayyip, resign!” they yelled, waving red flags and banners and whistling. AFP reporters saw many demonstrators being carried away by medics.
In Antakya, the local governor’s office said Tuesday that a 22-year-old
man, Abdullah Comert, had died after being shot in the head by an unidentified person on Monday but the Anatolia news agency, citing the public prosecutor’s office, said an autopsy revealed no gunshot wounds but that he had suffered a blow to the head.
Rights groups and doctors say more than 1,000 people had been wounded in
Istanbul and 700 in Ankara. The government had previously put the figure at 58 civilians and 115 security forces injured, but has not given an updated estimate since Sunday, when it said 1,700 people had been arrested and many since released.
Turkey’s Western allies have voiced mounting alarm over the crisis in the country, which for years has been trying to join the European Union.
Kerry said Washington was “deeply concerned about the numbers of people
injured,” urging all sides to “avoid any provocations or violence.”
“We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police,”
Kerry told reporters. “We obviously hope that there will be a full
investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force with respect to those kinds of incidents.”
NATO-member Turkey is a key regional ally for the United States, and the
two countries have been working together closely, particularly over the brutal conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Erdogan told protesters they should wait to express their views in
elections next year, when observers expect him to make a run for president. “For me, democracy comes from the ballot box.”