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Turkish police, protesters clash over park demolition

8:26 PM, Jun 1, 2013   |    comments
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A protestor holds a Turkish flag with a portrait of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as he takes part in a demonstration in support of protests in Istanbul and against the Turkish Prime Minister and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in Ankara, on June 1, 2013. Turkish police on June 1 began pulling out of Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square, after a second day of violent clashes between protesters and police over a controversial development project. Thousands of demon

ISTANBUL (USA Today) -- Police withdrew Saturday from Istanbul's Taksim Square after protesters turned out in the tens of thousands, calling for the resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The protests grew out of anger when police used heavy-handed tactics on Friday to break up a peaceful sit-in against the demolition of Gezi Park, which is scheduled to be torn down to make space for a new shopping mall and reconstruction of an Ottoman-era barracks.

The park demonstration then turned into a wider protest against Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and spread to other Turkish cities - including Izmir, Ankara and Bodrum - despite the court decision to temporarily halt the demolition of the park.

Erdogan called on demonstrators to end their protest Saturday, but he remained adamant about the redevelopment plans at Taksim that sparked the demonstrations and said the government would press ahead with construction.

In a televised speech, Erdogan said police may have used tear gas excessively while confronting protesters and said such accusations would be investigated. But he said the protesters didn't represent the majority and accused them of raising tensions.

Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, said the government was wrong to break up the peaceful protest with tear gas.

"It would have been more helpful to try and persuade people who said they didn't want a shopping mall instead of spraying them with tear gas," Arinc told reporters.

On Saturday, protesters were dancing on overturned police barriers as plumes of smoke rose from one of the construction barracks next to the park. It was set ablaze earlier by demonstrators and continued to smolder after firefighters extinguished it.

Police forced out protesters - who had been entrenched in the park since Wednesday - in a dawn raid on Friday, leading to a massive turnout that lasted through the night and saw touristy Istiklal Street turned into a maze of overturned plants, carts and broken glass as people broke shop windows.

Ahmet Gurbuz, one of the about 40 doctors staffing a field hospital, said 400 patients have been treated in the past two days, most for tear gas inhalation, and about 40 for injuries from flying tear gas canisters.

"There were more patients yesterday, but it's starting to be heavy today now too," he said Saturday.

Tear gas was thick in the streets, and nearly everyone was wearing some kind of mask and carrying bottles of antacid mixed with water.

Opinion on the streets is split about whether the protests will end up more closely resembling the Occupy movement or the Arab Spring. "It will probably be something in between," said 34-year-old Araz Zeyniyev, who has lived in Turkey for 11 years. "These protests are drawing everybody, from every level of society. It will keep going as long as Erdogan keeps resisting."

The planned destruction of the park is just the latest in a string of events that critics say show the government's insensitivity to the will of the people. Recent legislation banning the sale of alcohol during certain hours has added to the rage that many Istanbul residents feel about having one of the few green spaces in their city torn down without their consent.

"This decision is illegal and it was implemented by force," said Betul Tanbay, a co-founder of Taksim Platform, a group opposing the destruction of the park. "It is a protected cultural area, and normally the municipality should decide what happens. But in this case the prime minister decided. The mayor told me 'leave the project alone, because the prime minister wants it to happen.' This is the only breathing area in Beyoglu (the northern part of Istanbul's European side)."

The heavy-handed police tactics also drew a response from the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who made a televised statement defending the rights of the people to protest peacefully.

"They have a profound intolerance of the right to protest and the right to free assembly," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch researcher for Europe and Central Asia in Istanbul, said of the country. "What they cannot learn is that when they resist it becomes much bigger."

Contributing: The Associated Press

USA Today

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