Riot police firing tear gas and water cannons repelled thousands of anti-government protesters attempting to converge on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended his crackdown at a rally of his supporters.
A day after police quashed an 18-day sit-in at the square’s Gezi Park, Erdogan spoke to hundreds of thousands of his supporters on one side of Turkey’s largest city, and throngs of protesters angrily tried to regroup and reclaim Taksim. The square had become the symbolic center of defiance against Erdogan’s government.
The contrast between the two events highlighted growing divisions in Turkish society, which many say have been exacerbated by Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric as he faced down the most widespread protests in his 10-year tenure.
Although they have dented his international image and angered many at home, the protests are unlikely to prove a significant challenge to his government. He was elected with 50 percent of the vote just two years ago.
Labor unions called for a one-day strike that would include doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants in support of the protesters. Strikes, however, often have little visible impact on daily life in Turkey.
Police may have won the day Saturday by recouping control of the park, sending thousands of protesters scurrying under a barrage of tear gas. But as night fell Sunday, demonstrators continued their day-long quest to reach Taksim Square, and protests emerged in other cities.
In some Istanbul neighborhoods, stone-throwing youths erected barricades and faced off against riot police, raising the prospect that the decision to launch the police sweep against Gezi Park may have done more to fan unrest than to end it.
The Dogan news agency said Sunday that dozens of protesters had been detained in Istanbul and about 70 in Ankara, the capital.
On orders from his Islamic-rooted, conservative government, hundreds of riot police swept through what had become a colorful tent city in Gezi Park Saturday evening, spraying protesters with water cannon and firing tear gas as protesters fled.
Erdogan defended his decision in a thunderous speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters in western Istanbul Sunday afternoon, saying the instructions had been part of his “duty” as prime minister — to ensure the rule of law after protesters defied his efforts to negotiate a way out of the standoff.
Nationwide protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown against peaceful activists staging an initial sit-in to protest government plans to rip down Gezi Park’s trees and erect a replica Ottoman-era barracks. The protests quickly spiraled into a widespread denunciation of what many say is Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian way of governing — charges he vehemently denies.
The protests have left at least five people dead, including a police officer, according to a Turkish rights group, and more than 5,000 injured.
Unrelenting, a spokesman for one of the protesters’ groups vowed that they would eventually retake Gezi Park.
“We will win Taksim Square again and we will win Taksim Gezi Park again,” Alican Elagoz said.
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