Turkish rioters burned tyres and hurled fireworks at police who fired back tear gas as unrelenting protests erupted into fresh unrest early Sunday, in defiance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The new clashes raised pressure on Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted conservative government after he ordered an end to the protests, which have thrown up the fiercest challenge to his decade of rule.
Tens of thousands poured into the streets in Istanbul, cradle of the 10 days of unrest, as well as in the capital Ankara and the major western city of Izmir.
“Tayyip, resign!” they yelled, in mostly peaceful protests.
Local media said numerous people were injured in Ankara when police dispersed a crowd of about 10,000, sending them scrambling and tripping over each other with jets of water and gas.
Fresh clashes also erupted in Istanbul’s western Gazi neighbourhood, a working class district largely peopled by Alevis, a Muslim minority opposed to Erdogan, where rioters hurled incendiary devices and taunted police.
The government insisted on Saturday that the protests were “under control”, but within hours some of the largest crowds yet packed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where the unrest erupted on May 31 with a police crackdown on a campaign to save the adjacent Gezi Park from demolition.
The trouble spiralled into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian. Thousands have been injured and three people have died in the unrest so far, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
The atmosphere was festive overnight in Taksim, which has seen no police presence since officers pulled out last Saturday, with crowds of local football supporters setting off red flares, filling the square with pink smoke as the masses danced and shouted deep into the night.
Government ministers and President Abdullah Gul have struck a more conciliatory line than Erdogan since the outbreak of unrest.
In fresh bid to calm the turmoil, the man who ordered the initial police crackdown, the governor of Istanbul Huseyin Avni Mutlu, apologised on Twitter and said he wished he was with the protesters camping out on Taksim Square.
“There seems to be a calm atmosphere on the square this morning. I would have like to be among you,” he said, after the night’s noise subsided at dawn, leaving hungover revellers dozing on the ground.
“I salute the young people of this country who chose to sleep on the square under the stars instead of in their warm beds.”
Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik, speaking after a meeting between the premier and top AKP officials on Saturday, downplayed the rallies.
“The process is under the control of the government, and is becoming normalised and increasingly in line with common sense,” he told reporters in Istanbul Saturday.
He dismissed any talk of calling early elections to resolve the crisis. “You don’t decide on early elections because people are marching on the streets.”
In a bid to calm tensions, Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas on Saturday said the park would not be turned into a shopping mall, as some feared, but said the reconstruction of an Ottoman-era military barracks at the site would go ahead.
The protesters in Gezi Park, who say they have seen their civil rights and freedoms steadily eroded under Erdogan, rejected the olive branch.
Resting wearily on a blanket on Taksim Square with friends on Sunday after a night of defiant chanting and dancing, Buse Albay, 25, said she would keep protesting against the premier for “as long as it takes until he goes away”.
Packing up his tent nearby, Aykut Kaya, a 23-year-old IT student, added: “It was amazing, so beautiful to see everyone together” in the overnight rally.
He said he hoped Erdogan was watching. “Please see us. We are here. We all need freedom.”
Erdogan has faced international condemnation for his handling of the unrest in Turkey, a Nato member and key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.
The national doctors’ union says the unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.
Critics accuse Erdogan, in power since 2002, of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing big urban development projects at the expense of local residents.
Opposition to Turkey’s combative leader is intense, but his AKP party has won three elections in a row, having presided over strong economic growth.
Local and presidential elections are scheduled for next year and the AKP said it plans to launch its first campaign rally in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend.
The rallies are likely to draw tens of thousands of Erdogan supporters.