Turkish police amps up overnight attacks on Gezi Park protesters

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Riot police spray protesters with tear gas at Taksim square in Istanbul on 11 June 2013. (Photo: AFP - Angelos Tzortzinis)

Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Updated at 6:30pm: Turkish riot police waged running battles with pockets of protesters overnight, clearing the central Istanbul square that has been the focus of nearly two weeks of protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

By dawn Wednesday, Taksim Square, strewn with wreckage from bulldozed barricades, was largely deserted and taxis crossed it for the first time since the demonstrations started. Several hundred remained in an encampment of tents in Gezi Park abutting the square.

By late afternoon, hundreds of officers armed with riot shields and backed by water cannon trucks were clustered along the eastern side of the square. Just a stone's throw away, demonstrators huddled up in Gezi Park but there were no fresh confrontations.

Erdogan, who has repeatedly dismissed the demonstrators as "riff-raff" and “looters”, met with a grouping of public figures about the protests on Wednesday. He said on Tuesday he would not "kneel" before the protesters and that "this Tayyip Erdogan won't change."

Many protesters said the unexpected crackdown on Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since June 1, had made them lose faith in any dialogue.

"We don't accept it," said Anessa, a 29-year-old photographer, complaining that the government had cherry-picked the groups invited to the meeting.

Walking around a subdued Gezi Park in the rain, she said the violence only made protesters more determined. "We are not afraid. We are very angry and we will not stop."

"There's no room for dialogue when there's ongoing violence," said Mucella Yapici of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a core group behind the Gezi Park campaign.

Erdogan has increasingly accused foreign forces and international media and market speculators of stoking conflict and trying to undermine the economy of the only largely Muslim NATO state.

He has also exerted strong pressure on the media, seven newspapers last week carrying the identical headline citing Erdogan as saying he, not the protesters, guaranteed democracy.

According to Hurriyet Daily News, at least four Turkish television channels were fined by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. The RTUK claimed that footage broadcast by channels Halk TV, Ulusal TV, Cem TV and EM TV was "harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people."

The night had brought some of the worst clashes since the troubles began. Police fired tear gas into thousands of people gathered on the square,including people in office clothes who had gathered after work, some with families with children.

Taksim Square resembled a battle scene, police firing volleys of tear gas to disperse the crowd chanting "Erdogan, resign!" and "Resistance!"

Demonstrators scattered into narrow streets around the square, leaving only a core of protesters to return, lighting bonfires and throwing stones at water cannons. Police then launched tear gas attacks again, the cycle repeating itself until numbers dwindled.

"We will continue our measures in an unremitting manner, whether day or night, until marginal elements are cleared and the square is open to the people," Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu declared on television on Tuesday night.

Police were less in evidence by the morning and it was not clear if protesters would return in the course of the day, as they have previously.

A fierce crackdown on initial protests against planned redevelopment of Gezi Park, a leafy corner of Taksim, triggered the wider protests, drawing in a broad alliance of secularists, nationalists, professional workers, unionists and students – some of whom would never before have considered sharing a political platform.

Gezi Park has been turned into a ramshackle settlement of tents by leftists, environmentalists, liberals, students and professionals who see a plan to develop one of the few green spaces in Istanbul as symptomatic of an overbearing government.

The capital Ankara also saw renewed clashes overnight as riot police used gas, pepper spray and water cannon against thousands of protesters in Kugulu Park.

Erdogan claims that the broader mass of people are at best the unwitting tools of “political extremists” and “terrorists,” and urged "sincere" protesters in Gezi Park to pull back, warning that their environmental campaign was being hijacked by "an illegal uprising against the rule of democracy."

"They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen here? Were we going to kneel down in front of these (people)?" Erdogan said after the action to clear the square began on Tuesday morning.

"If you call this roughness, I'm sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change," he told a meeting of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) parliamentary group.

His critics, some of whom who say conservative religious elements have won out over centrist reformers in his AKP, accuse him an increasingly authoritarian conduct and of inflaming the crisis with unyielding talk.

Turkey's Medical Association said that as of late Monday, 4,947 people had sought treatment in hospitals and voluntary infirmaries for injuries, ranging from cuts and burns to breathing difficulties from tear gas inhalation, since the unrest began more than 10 days ago. Four people have died, including one policeman.

The United States expressed concern about events in Turkey and urged dialogue between government and protesters.

"We believe that Turkey's long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and a free independent media," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the police crackdown in Istanbul and called for dialogue.

"Tear-gassing tens of thousands of protesters in Taksim Square won't end this crisis," HRW said in a statement.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)


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