Riot police stormed Istanbul's protest square yesterday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at firework-hurling demonstrators in a fresh escalation of unrest after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet protest leaders.
Hundreds of police poured into Taksim Square, the epicentre of nearly two weeks of anti-government protests, warning demonstrators to stay away as bulldozers began clearing the makeshift barriers erected by protesters after police pulled out of the area on June 1.
The police's return to the square in armoured cars raised the stakes in the nationwide unrest that has posed the fiercest challenge yet to Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted government's decade-long rule.
Smoke filled the area as police doused protesters with tear gas, urging them to return to adjoining Gezi Park, with some protesters, in helmets and gas masks, throwing petrol bombs, fireworks and stones in response.
The intervention came just hours after Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Erdogan would meet protest leaders today, in his first major concession since the trouble began.
But in a sign of the action to come, he warned: "Illegal demonstrations will not be allowed any more in Turkey."
The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on a campaign to save Gezi Park from demolition on May 31.
The trouble spiralled into mass displays of anger against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Nearly 5,000 demonstrators, scores of whom are young and middle-class, have been injured and three people have died, raising concerns among Turkey's Western partners about its democratic credentials.
"This spectacle (of protesters in Taksim Square) upset people... tarnished the country's image before the eyes of the world," Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said in televised remarks, blaming the unrest on "fringe elements".
In a clear signal they were reclaiming Taksim, police removed dozens of flags and anti-Erdogan banners that had adorned a cultural centre overlooking the square in recent days. They were replaced with a single Turkish flag and a large portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, whose image has also been adopted by the protesters.
Tens of thousands over the weekend defied Erdogan's call to end their protests in cities across Turkey after he warned that his patience "has a limit".
Turkey's combative leader has so far responded with defiance to the protesters. On Sunday, he inflamed tensions by staging his own rallies, firing up AKP supporters with combative rhetoric.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics - including journalists, minority Kurds and the military. But the 59-year-old, in power since 2002, remains the country's favourite politician. His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in the 2011 polls.