ISTANBUL: An uneasy calm returned to Istanbul’s protest square early Wednesday after running clashes between riot police and protesters, as Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed zero tolerance for the mass demos.
Hours earlier, Taksim Square had resembled a battle scene, swathed in acrid smoke as police dispersed tens of thousands of protesters chanting “Erdogan, resign!” and “Resistance!” on the worst night of violence in 12 days of nationwide unrest.
After riot police sent the large crowd scrambling with tear gas and jets of water, cat-and-mouse games with smaller groups of demonstrators continued into the night.
By 5:00 am, refuse trucks were clearing up the empty gas cannisters and the remains of broken barricades which had for more than a week blocked all access to the square and neighbouring Gezi Park, the original flashpoint for the protests.
There was a heavy police presence in the square while thousands of weary demonstrators took refuge in the park.
Fresh unrest also erupted in the capital Ankara on Tuesday, with police using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon against 5,000 protesters near the US embassy. Some threw rocks in response.
The unexpected police intervention in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which began early Tuesday morning, marked the first time officers had returned to the area since pulling out more than a week ago. They fought hours-long battles with clusters of demonstrators, some of whom hurled fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
The police also brought in bulldozers to clear barricades erected by demonstrators.
The assault on Taksim Square surprised protesters, many of whom were dozing in the nearby park, because it came after Prime Minister Erdogan said he would meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, his first major concession since the trouble began.
But the premier made no mention of the olive branch Tuesday and resumed his tough stance against the demonstrators, who have put up the biggest challenge yet to his decade-long rule.
“This episode is now over. We won’t show any more tolerance,” the premier told cheering lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.
“Can you believe that? They attack Taksim, gas us in the morning just after proposing talks with us?” said 23-year-old Yilmaz. “We won’t abandon Gezi,” he vowed. “I am not afraid of their water cannon, it’ll be my first shower in three days.” The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on May 31 on a campaign to save Gezi Park from redevelopment.
The trouble spiralled into mass displays of anger against Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Erdogan said on Tuesday that four people, including a policeman, had died in the unrest. Nearly 5,000 demonstrators, many of whom are young and middle-class, have been injured.
In a rousing speech to lawmakers, Erdogan urged “sincere” protesters in Gezi Park to pull back, warning that their environmental campaign was being hijacked by “an illegal uprising against the rule of democracy”.
Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu sought to justify the police intervention, saying the protesters’ takeover of Taksim Square “tarnished the country’s image before the eyes of the world”, and assured demonstrators that police would not storm Gezi Park.
Inside the park, filled with smoke wafting in from Taksim Square, volunteers offered first aid to injured demonstrators.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the police crackdown and called for dialogue.
“Tear-gassing tens of thousands of protesters in Taksim Square won’t end this crisis,” HRW said. “The police brutality has to stop.” Opponents accuse Erdogan of curbing freedoms and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the mainly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.
But the 59-year-old, in power since 2002, remains the country’s most popular politician. His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.
Erdogan has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.
The first campaign rallies will be staged in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend and are expected to gather tens of thousands of party faithful.
Turkey, a country of 76 million at the crossroads of East and West, is a key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies. Many of them have criticised Erdogan’s handling of the crisis.