Turkish protesters occupy park after police retreat

Embattled Erdogan admits to 'extremism' in police response during demonstrations but remains defiant over plan to redevelop square

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 4:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am


Thousands of Turkish protesters poured onto the streets and reoccupied a central Istanbul park yesterday as the police withdrew after three days of violent clashes that sparked a massive anti- regime demonstration.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an immediate end to violent protests which have engulfed Istanbul for two days but admitted that "there have been some mistakes, extremism in police response" and that legal action would be taken against officers who had acted disproportionately.

Even as he appeared to relent to demonstrators by pulling back police, Erdogan remained defiant, insisting that the demonstrations were illegitimate and promising to move ahead with redevelopment of the square. He challenged protesters that he could easily summon a million people for a pro-government rally.

The police retreat from Gezi Park and nearby Taksim Square came as supporters of the opposition Republican People's Party marched on the square. After reoccupying the park, they danced and called for the resignation of Erdogan.

Police, firing pepper gas capsules, dispersed thousands of protesters in Istanbul and Ankara earlier, following similar clashes in several other cities late on Friday. Protesters in Istanbul, including students and doctors, said that they were resisting an increasingly authoritarian regime under Erdogan.

"It was Hitler who was dictating his will in 1940s, it is Erdogan today," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Republican party leader said in a televised speech. "We don't want 1940s Germany, we want 2013s Turkey. We want democracy and freedom in Turkey."

A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted through the night. As police retreated, some protesters hurled objects at officers and vehicles, prompting police to fire several rounds of tear gas, the private Dogan news agency reported.

Police also withdrew from a protest in Ankara, the capital.

At Taksim, protesters chanted anti-government protests - including "Tayyip resign!" Turkish celebrities also joined the crowds, with thousands milling around the square, waving flags, and cheering and clapping at anti-government speeches.

Protesters who had camped out at Taksim were angry over the planned removal of trees in the square, one of the few bits of green in sprawling Istanbul. Officials are planning to build a shopping mall and rebuild a former Ottoman army barracks.

Under Erdogan's leadership in the past decade, Turkey has boosted economic growth and raised its international profile. Though widely supported by rural and conservative religious Muslims, he remains a divisive figure in mainly secular circles.

In a surprise move last week, the government quickly passed legislation curbing the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks.

"They want to turn this country into an Islamist state. They want to impose their vision all the while pretending to respect democracy," said one woman protester in Istanbul.

As police helicopters circled overhead, Aydin Kavacik, a driver for a textile firm, said: "Drinking is forbidden, walking with your girlfriend is forbidden, everything is forbidden. We're here to overthrow Erdogan."

Additional reporting by Bloomberg