Battle for Turkey's Taksim Square rages on

Protesters trying to retake 'ground zero' flee tear gas and water cannons as PM stands his ground

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 4:59am

Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons yesterday at demonstrators trying to return to Istanbul's main square, maintaining a hard line against rekindled protests as the prime minister's supporters prepared to rally across town.

Police in uniform and plainclothes sealed off Taksim Square and adjacent Gezi Park, which riot police cleared on Saturday night. Crews worked through the night to remove all traces of a sit-in that started more than two weeks ago and became the focus of the strongest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his 10 years in office.

Istanbul's governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said the square was off-limits to the public for now and nobody would be allowed to gather. A spokesman for the protesters vowed the group would retake Gezi Park. "We will win Taksim Square again and we will win Taksim Gezi Park again," Alican Elagoz said.

A call went out for another demonstration in Taksim Square for yesterday afternoon, but the area was within a tight police cordon, with passers-by subjected to identity checks and bag searches. Thousands of protesters trying to reach the area were stuck on side streets in a blanket of tear gas.

Erdogan, who has repeatedly insisted the protests are part of a nebulous plot by bankers and foreign media to destabilise Turkey, was to deliver a speech at a political rally about 10 kilometres from the square.

A similar speech in Ankara on Saturday before the raid was attended by tens of thousands of supporters who cheered him as he warned protesters that security forces "know how to clear" the area.

Erdogan has said the AK Party rallies in Ankara and Istanbul are meant to kick off campaigning for local elections next year and are not related to the protests, but they are widely seen as a show of strength in response to the demonstrations.

The protests began as an environmental sit-in to prevent a development project at Gezi Park, but anger over a violent crackdown there quickly spread to dozens of cities and spiralled into a broader expression of discontent with what many say is Erdogan's authoritarian manner.

In clashes that lasted through the night and into the morning in Istanbul, protesters set up barricades and plumes of tear gas rose in the streets. Television footage showed police detaining medical personnel who had been helping treat injured protesters.

Riot police also entered a shopping mall in an upscale neighbourhood, apparently searching for protesters.

In Ankara, the capital, police ratcheted up the pressure in the early afternoon, firing water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas at central Kizilay Square. At least four people were injured. Earlier, police had dispersed hundreds who tried to hold a memorial service for a protester who died of injuries sustained in a nearby police crackdown on June 1.

In Saturday's raid, hundreds of riot police swept through Gezi Park and Taksim Square at dusk, firing canisters of acrid, stinging gas. Thousands of protesters, choking on the fumes and stumbling among the tents, put up little resistance.