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Istanbul's Taksim Square empty

12 June 2013, 16:07

Istanbul - Demonstrators retreated from an Istanbul protest square on Wednesday after a night of running battles with riot police as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flexed his muscle to crush mass demos against his Islamic-rooted government.

Taksim Square, the epicentre of nationwide unrest, was firmly under police control by the early morning as refuse trucks cleared up tear gas canisters and the charred debris of protesters' makeshift barricades.

Under the eyes of dozens of officers armed with riot shields, cars and buses returned to the square for the first time in more than 10 days.

Hundreds of weary protesters regrouped in the adjoining Gezi Park, whose conservation fight lit the flame of the unrest that has thrown up the fiercest challenge yet to Erdogan's decade-long rule.

The premier was to hold talks with some protest leaders on Wednesday, but many protesters said the unexpected crackdown on Taksim Square, which had seen no police presence since 1 June, 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.

Renewed clashes in Ankara

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."

The capital Ankara also saw renewed clashes overnight as riot police used gas, pepper spray and water cannon against thousands of protesters near the US embassy. Some threw rocks in response.

Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian, has taken a tough line on the demonstrators, many of whom are young and middle-class. On Tuesday, he warned his patience had run out.

"We won't show any more tolerance," he told cheering lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.

Hours later, Taksim Square resembled a battle scene, police firing volleys of tear gas to disperse tens of thousands chanting "Erdogan, resign!" and "Resistance!"

Cat-and-mouse games continued into the night, with police firing gas, jets of water and rubber bullets at demonstrators who hurled back fireworks, bottles and molotov cocktails.

Four dead

The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on 31 May on a campaign to save Gezi Park from redevelopment, spiralling into mass displays of anger against Erdogan.

Four people, including a policeman, have died in the unrest. Nearly 5 000 demonstrators have been injured, tarnishing Turkey's image as a model of Islamic democracy.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HEW) 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.

Erdogan on Tuesday 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".

Police did not intervene in the park overnight, where volunteers offered first aid to victims of the clashes, though many protesters abandoned their tents to escape wafts of tear gas drifting in from Taksim.

Confidence in popularity

"We want people to wake up... This was one of the biggest events in Turkey," law student Fulya Dagli, aged 21, said as she handed out breakfast in the park.

"People are learning not to be scared of the government. That's something we gained and can't give up again."

Confident in his enduring popularity, Erdogan, in power since 2002, has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.

His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.

The first campaign rallies will be staged in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend and are expected to gather tens of thousands of party faithful.

Turkey, a country of 76 million at the crossroads of East and West, is a key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies. Many of them have criticised Erdogan's handling of the crisis.



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