Turkish PM Erdogan calls for end to protests

Police attempt to relieve tensions after two days of clashes Erdogan acknowledges mistakes in tear gas use against protesters.

June 1, 2013 18:15
4 minute read.
Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-government protest in Istanbul, June 1

Turkish anti-government protest 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Police began to withdraw its forces from Istanbul's Taksim Square on Saturday afternoon in an attempt to relieve tensions from two days of anti-government clashes. As police retreated, tens of thousands of protesters re-entered the square, taking over Gezi Park that is at the center of the clashes.

The unrest was triggered by government plans for a replica Ottoman-era barracks housing shops or apartments in Istanbul's Taksim Square, long a venue for political protest, but has widened into a broader show of defiance against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Police fired teargas and water cannon to prevent crowds of protesters chanting "unite against fascism" and "government resign" from reaching Taksim, where hundreds were injured in clashes on Friday.

Protesters also clashed with police in the Besiktas neighborhood after walking across a road bridge over the Bosphorus in another apparent attempt to reach the square.

Protesters clash with riot police during an anti-government protest in central Istanbul June 1, 2013 (Reuters)

Earlier on Saturday, Erdogan called for an immediate end to the clashes, and acknowledged mistakes had been made in the use of teargas against protesters. He said the government was investigating, but that the police reserved the right to use reasonable force.

"Taksim Square can't be a place where extremist groups hang around," he said of a location which has long been a venue for mass demonstrations.

"The police has had a mission there for decades, it didn't start with AKP rule. Wherever you go in the world, in places like this ... governments would take measures. That is what the steps taken here are about."

Despite withdrawing riot police forces from the square, Erdogan vowed to push ahead with the redevelopment of Taksim Square and said the issue was being used as an excuse to stoke tensions.

Riot police use tear gas to disperse the crowd during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul June 1, 2013 (Reuters)

"Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice," Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.

"Those who have a problem with government's policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy ... I am asking the protesters to immediately end these actions," he said.

The opposition accused him of behaving like a dictator.

"Tens of thousands are saying no, they are opposing the dictator ... The fact that you are the ruling party doesn't mean you can do whatever you want," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

Riot police use a water canon to restrain a protester during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul June 1, 2013 (Reuters)

The protest at Taksim's Gezi Park started late on Monday after trees were torn up under the redevelopment plan, but has widened into a broader demonstration against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan has overseen a transformation in Turkey during his decade in power, turning its economy from crisis-prone into Europe's fastest-growing, and remains by far the country's most popular politician.

'Excessive force'

But critics point to his authoritarianism and what they say is his government's meddling in private life. Tighter restrictions on alcohol sales and warnings against public displays of affection in recent weeks have led to protest. And many Turks are also concerned government policy means Turkey will be dragged into the conflict in Syria by the West.

Medics said close to 1,000 people were injured in the clashes in Istanbul on Friday, the fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Half a dozen lost eyes after being hit by gas canisters, the Turkish Doctors' Association said.


The US State Department said it was concerned by the number of injuries while Amnesty International and the European parliament raised concern about excessive use of police force. Interior Minister Muammer Guler said allegations that police had used disproportionate force would be investigated.

Stone-throwing protesters also clashed with police firing tear gas in the Kizilay district of central Ankara as a helicopter hovered overhead. Further protests were planned in other centers including the Aegean coastal city of Izmir.

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