Riot police fired water cannons and tear gas on protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and neighboring Gezi Park on Saturday, an intervention that came shortly after the prime minister warned that security forces “know how to clear” the area.
Protesters had defied Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s earlier warnings to leave, vowing to press on with a sit-in that has galvanized demonstrations around the country and dented Erdogan’s international reputation.
Saturday’s sweep 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 a phalanx of 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, 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.
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 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 Erdogan’s international reputation.
Erdogan, who was elected with 50 percent 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 Sunday in Istanbul, though Erdogan has previously said that the rallies were not designed as “an alternative” to the demonstrations at Gezi Park, but part of early campaigning for local elections next March.
On Saturday, 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,” 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 centered 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 time by throwing stones and firebombs.
“There is no breaking and burning here, we are people of love,” Erdogan said. “If people want to see the real Turkey, they should come here to Sincan.”
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, 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.
Taksim Square itself returned to normal right after the end of the police operation early Wednesday. Traffic returned, the protest banners and flags were taken down, and cafes set up their chairs and tables outside again. At night, demonstrators still spill out from the park down the steps, while riot police keep watch from the edges.
Tayfun Kahraman, a Taksim Solidarity member who met with Erdogan in last-ditch talks that lasted until the pre-dawn hours Friday, said the protesters had agreed to continue their sit-in at Gezi Park after holding a series of discussions.
“We shall remain in the park until all of our democratic rights are recognized,” he told The Associated Press, insisting that four key demands laid out by protesters in the talks had not been met.
The group has demanded that the park be left intact, anyone responsible for excessive police force resign or be fired, all activists detained in the protests be released, and the police use of tear gas and other non-lethal weapons be banned.
“As of today, with the dynamism and strength that comes from the struggle that has spread to the whole country, and even the world, we shall continue the resistance against all kinds of injustice and victimization in our country,” Taksim Solidarity said in a statement posted on its website and later read out in the park. The group didn’t say explicitly that it would remain in the park.
As the statement was read out, many among the gathered crowd clapped and began shouting, “This is just the beginning — the struggle continues!”
Although the most prominent group to emerge from the protests, Taksim Solidarity doesn’t speak for everyone occupying Gezi. With many protesters saying they have no affiliation to any group or political party, many could make individual decisions on whether to stay or leave.
But there were few signs of anyone intending to pack up Saturday afternoon, and the daily activity in what has become a tent city continued with little indication of change. Deliveries of bottles of water and food arrived, people lined up for servings of lunch, while others cleared garbage and swept the paths clean after the morning rain.
According to the government’s redevelopment plan for Taksim Square, the park would be replaced with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. Under initial plans, the construction would have housed a shopping mall, though that has since been amended to the possibility of an opera house, a theater and a museum with cafes.
Protesters angered by the project began occupying the park last month, but the police crackdown on May 31 saw the demonstrations spread to dozens of cities across the country. In recent days they have concentrated on Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.
Earlier Saturday, President Abdullah Gul wrote on Twitter that “everyone should now return home,” insisting that “the channels for discussion and dialogue” have opened — an apparent reference to the talks between Erdogan and a small group of delegates from the protest.