Michelle Fitzpatrick (AFP) – Turkish police stormed an Istanbul park on Saturday after protesters defied an ultimatum from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end their occupation of the site, in a major escalation of more than two weeks of anti-government unrest.
Two hours after Erdogan warned of police intervention if protesters did not leave Gezi Park, the epicentre of the protest movement, police entered the green patch firing volleys of tear gas and jets of water.
Thousands of campers scrambled as police trampled tents, pulled down banners and broke down barricades in the park, an AFP reporter saw. A city cleaning crew then swiftly moved in to clear the site.
Earlier, police had already used tear gas and bursts of water to disperse hundreds of demonstrators from Taksim Square, which borders Gezi Park.
The police action sent tensions soaring in the civil unrest that has seen four people killed and nearly 7,500 injured, and has posed the biggest challenge yet to the decade-long rule of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government.
The trouble boiled over on Saturday after demonstrators in Gezi Park refused to clear out in return for Erdogan’s promise that he would suspend the site’s controversial redevelopment.
Rebuffed, Erdogan poured oil on the flames at an election rally for tens of thousands of supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the capital Ankara.
“We have an Istanbul rally tomorrow (Sunday),” the premier told cheering loyalists in a sea of red Turkish flags.
“Let me put it clearly: empty Taksim. If it is not evacuated, this country’s security forces know how to evacuate there,” he said.
A peaceful sit-in to save Gezi Park’s 600 trees from being razed in a redevelopment plan prompted a brutal police response on May 31, spiralling into nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
— ‘This is not over’ —
Mey Elbi, a 39-year-old yoga teacher, was in the park when police entered on Saturday.
“They took our goggles and gas masks,” she told AFP, referring to items the protesters carry against tear gas attacks.
“I won’t give up,” she vowed. “We’re angry, this is not over. The world has seen that together, we can stand up to Tayyip.”
Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which became the festive focal point of the demos, had been cleared by hundreds of riot police on Tuesday in some of the heaviest clashes yet in the unrest, and protesters only returned sporadically after that.
After days of taking a combative stance against the demonstrators, dismissing them as “looters” and “extremists”, Erdogan made an unexpected conciliatory gesture on Friday by holding his first talks with the Taksim Solidarity group, seen as most representative of the protesters.
He agreed to abide by a court-ordered suspension of the park project — a move welcomed by the protesters. He also said that if the court rules that the Gezi Park redevelopment is legal, he wants to hold a popular vote on plans to build a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks on the site.
But in an official response, the protest group said the government had failed to address their list of demands, including a call for arrested demonstrators to be released and for police chiefs in cities that saw violent clashes to be sacked.
“We will continue our resistance in the face of any injustice and unfairness taking place in our country,” Taksim Solidarity said in a statement. “This is only the beginning.”
Opponents have accused Erdogan of repressing critics and of forcing conservative Islamic policies on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation — including religious education reforms and restrictions on alcohol sales.
While opposition to the premier is intense, the 59-year-old has been in power since 2002 and remains the country’s most popular politician.
His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth in the country of 76 million people.
Erdogan has repeatedly urged supporters to answer the protesters by voting for his AKP in next year’s local polls.
Erdogan is set to hold a rally in Istanbul on Sunday.
The premier has insisted the rallies are not meant as a showdown, but loyalists were uniting under slogans saying: “Respect the national will” and “The game is over. It’s time to write history”.
The United States and other Western allies have widely criticised Erdogan’s handling of the crisis, undermining Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.