Turkish Police Push Into Square Near Park Protest

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ISTANBUL -- Riot police officers moved into Taksim Square in central Istanbul on Tuesday, firing tear gas grenades and water cannons and enveloping the center of this city with smoke and the sounds of ambulance sirens. The square, which has become a sprawling and eclectic hub of grievance against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was transformed into a tableau of urban chaos.

The operation took all day and was still in progress as the workday ended, when more protesters began reoccupying the square and police officers cleared it again with tear gas. The scene took on the air of a movie set: fireworks lit by protesters and nonlethal sound bombs set off by the police punctuated the chants of "Istanbul is ours! Taksim is ours!"

At intervals during the day, the police would advance into part of the square, then retreat again to rest, as officers mingled with onlookers, smoked cigarettes or bought snacks from street vendors. Short outbursts of clashes with protesters alternated with intervals of calm, allowing onlookers and tourists to gather in relatively safe spots and watch the action unfold, and then flee down side streets when the tear gas became too thick.

The police advance was far from decisive in quashing the protest movement that has risen to challenge the rule of Mr. Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam: Gezi Park, whose preservation was the initial focus of the protests, was left alone to its occupiers, who have erected a tent city there and have vowed to stay.

"We are here for the park and the park only," said Murat Bal, 27, who stood in the edge of the park as other areas of Taksim Square were being tear-gassed. "We will not yield to the provocation of stone throwers or police violence. We will stay in the park until the end."

The ongoing crisis that has engulfed Mr. Erdogan's government and threatened to tarnish the image of Turkey as a rising power, which he has helped craft, played out in other venues simultaneously Tuesday: at an Istanbul courthouse, several lawyers who had supported the protesters were detained, and as tear gas filled Taksim Square, Mr. Erdogan addressed his party in a speech broadcast to the nation.

Mr. Erdogan, in keeping with the defiant tone of his recent speeches, called the protest movement "an uprising against the democratic administration." He described the banners of leftist groups that had decorated the square in the absence of any government authority as those of "terrorist organizations."

"When I speak against all that, they say, 'The prime minister speaks very harshly.' If you call this harsh, sorry. Tayyip Erdogan never changes."

An early morning Twitter message from the provincial governor announced the impending operation, and he promised that the police would leave Gezi Park alone. "This morning you are in the safe hands of your police brothers," wrote the governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu.

The burst of civil unrest in Turkey began after a relatively small protest to save Gezi Park, which is to be demolished by the government and converted in to a replica Ottoman-era army barracks, was harshly attacked by riot police officers on May 31. The brutality of that crackdown sparked a spontaneous uprising among Turks whose anger against a government they see as increasingly authoritarian had been building for years.

On Tuesday, officers were visibly more restrained than they had been on May 31. They fired tear gas mostly when provoked, and did not seem to fire indiscriminately at protesters.

The protesters represent a cross section of Turkish society, including the secular middle class, youth, urban intellectuals and a mosaic of other interests. They cite a litany of complaints against the government, including its vast urban development plans in Istanbul, a crackdown on alcohol and Mr. Erdogan's leadership style, which they see as increasingly dismissive of the views of those who did not vote for him.

Despite the government promise to leave the park alone, many inside it on Tuesday were girding for an attack. People wrote their blood type on their arms with markers as a precaution. Doctors in a makeshift medical tent tended to protesters suffering the effects of tear gas.

Still, others seemed oblivious to the action. A few napped, and some students were studying for a coming physics exam. "I'm not going to fail my exams and become a bum because of Tayyip," said Emre Can, 24, a mechanical engineering student.

He added: "We don't care about the square. If they come into the park that is when we will stand up."

In leaving the park alone for now, the government sought to divide the movement between the original protesters and the marginal, mostly leftist, political groups that have co-opted the protests. The banners placed around the square by these groups were removed by the police, who in some corners of the square fought battles against hooligans throwing Molotov cocktails.

The police also cleared banners from the facade of the Ataturk Cultural Center, an old opera house awaiting destruction by government decree, but left hanging a poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and a Turkish flag.

The vast majority of the protesters have been peaceful, and have disavowed the violence of some groups. "It started with throwing stones, but now the extremists are sinking to the level of the police by throwing fireworks and firebombs," said Ece Yavuz, 36, who was on the park on Tuesday. "We will not participate in this violence."

The operation came a day after the government appeared to change tactics, with Mr. Erdogan agreeing to meet with protest leaders on Wednesday. It was the first public sign that Mr. Erdogan, a popular but stubborn leader who has broadly denounced the protests as the work of looters and thugs, was willing to directly engage at least some of the organizers in dialogue.

Three people have been killed and more than 2,300 injured in the violence, which has revealed deep-seated resentment toward Mr. Erdogan. Although he has widespread support across much of Turkey, the protests presented him with one of the biggest political challenges since he became Turkey's leader a decade ago.

The movement has mostly been an undertaking by secular Turks against a government many believe is trying to impose its religious views. But in a striking scene Tuesday, a small group of women, including two with headscarves, sat on the ground between police officers and protesters.

"We all have different beliefs and views but we must unite against violence," said one of the women wearing a headscarf, who refused to give her name. "That is why we should all sit here in silence and resist together."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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