Hundreds of riot police firing tear gas stormed a central Istanbul park Saturday, tearing down tents and clearing out demonstrators in a bold, if politically risky, move by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stem more than two weeks of antigovernment protests.
The police assault at twilight sent hundreds of protesters scurrying for cover as street clashes echoed through the city. The swift and overwhelming action by security forces highlighted the country’s deepening political divide and the potential danger Erdogan faces in further provoking a large segment of Turks critical of what they see as his authoritarian tendencies.
But Erdogan had made it clear for days that his patience was exhausted. Police backed by armored vehicles moved into Gezi Park — the epicenter of rallies that have given rise to new political voices while damaging the country’s international image — driving protesters from beneath sycamore trees and blocking access to adjoining Taksim Square.
Ambulances arrived outside the park as tear gas and water cannon spray enveloped the area. Turkey’s NTV television reported that police shouted at protesters: “This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you: Evacuate.”
The police have used “a lot of tear gas and rubber bullets,” said Lela Benim, a nurse at a field hospital near Gezi Park, while cleaning a thick white coating of tear gas off a man’s chest. “This response is what we have been afraid of.”
Thousands of demonstrators, who only hours earlier had vowed to hold the park, rushed into Istiklal Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, chanting, “Tayyip Resign.” The banged their fists against shuttered storefronts. Police responded with water cannon blasts and stun grenades.
“Some people do fight with the police — socialist factions — but the police don’t discriminate between them and the rest of us” peaceful protesters, said Emre Erkaslan, wearing a hard-hat and gas mask on Istiklal Street. “Erdogan is the worst kind of dictator because he thinks he’s actually a democrat.”
The violence broke out hours after Erdogan held a mass rally inAnkara, Turkey’s capital, to launch his Islamist-based Justice and Development Party’s municipal election campaign for 2014. During the speech, he argued that the protests were being manipulated by foreign powers and criminal groups.
“I say it clearly: Taksim Square must be evacuated, otherwise this country’s security forces know how to evacuate it,” he told his supporters
Riot police deployed in large numbers down Tarlabasi Boulevard, which runs from Taksim Square and parallel to Istiklal, fired round after round of tear gas and rubber bullets. They scoured back streets, throwing tear gas grenades at men who disappeared into the shadows before re-emerging with slingshots.
“Turkey will live its darkest night if this attack lasts for more than one hour,” Ali Cerkezoglu, the general secretary of the Turkish Medical Chamber, was quoted as saying by the daily Hurriyet newspaper.
Tension between police and demonstrators had eased after negotiations early Friday in which Erdogan agreed to freeze a development plan for Gezi Park pending a referendum and the outcome of court cases related to construction of a proposed Ottoman-era replica barracks and possibly a mosque and opera house.
The demonstrators, many of them young and secular with no fixed political allegiances, distrust Erdogan. Their environmental protest against building in the park coalesced with a growing national anger over what many see as Erdogan’s heavy-handed rule and government policies increasingly influenced by Islam.
The main opposition group — Taksim Solidarity — announced in a statement Saturday that it would continue occupying the park: “We are going through a period in which the rights of people, including right to life, are trodden.”
Taksim Solidarity also called for the government to investigate accusations of police brutality during the protests. The Turkish Medical Assn. said four people have been killed, including a policeman, and more than 5,000 injured in 18 days of unrest.
“We repeat that no serious legal action has yet been taken against those who perpetrated and oversaw the actions that lead to the killing of our friends, and … we will make sure those who are responsible for the violence are brought to justice.”
A protester who gave his name only as Borak stood on a side street near Istiklal Street. The pop of tear gas grenade launchers rang out and Borak said the night was just beginning.
“The park belongs to the people not to Erdogan,” he said. “We will take it back.”