Turkey PM vows 'no more tolerance'

2013-06-11 14:57
A protester throws back a tear gas canister during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul. (Kostas Tsironis, AP)

A protester throws back a tear gas canister during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul. (Kostas Tsironis, AP)

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Istanbul - Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to retake an Istanbul protest square on Tuesday as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he would show "no more tolerance" for the unrelenting mass demonstrations against his Islamic-rooted government.

Hundreds of police stormed the city's Taksim Square, the epicentre of nearly two weeks of deadly unrest, in the early morning and brought bulldozers to clear the makeshift barriers erected by demonstrators after police pulled out of the area on 1 June.

The police action surprised protesters, many of whom were dozing in nearby Gezi Park, because it came just hours after Erdogan agreed to hold talks with protest leaders on Wednesday, his first major concession since the trouble began.

But the premier made no mention of the olive branch on Tuesday and resumed his tough stance against the demonstrators who have thrown up the biggest challenge yet to his decade-long rule.

"This episode is now over. We won't show any more tolerance," the premier told lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.

Smoke filled Taksim Square as police doused protesters with tear gas and jets of waters and urged them to retreat to the adjoining Gezi Park. Some demonstrators, in helmets and gas masks, responded with molotov cocktails, fireworks and stones.

Tarnished image

"Can you believe that? They attack Taksim, gas us in the morning just after proposing talks with us? What kind of leader is that?" said Yulmiz, aged 23, after waking up to the clashes in his tent in Gezi Park.

"We won't abandon Gezi, they can send thousands of policemen," he vowed. "I am not afraid of their water cannon, it'll be my first shower in three days."

The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on 31 May on a campaign to save Gezi Park from redevelopment.

The trouble spiralled into mass displays of anger against Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian, tarnishing Turkey's image as a model of Islamic democracy.

Erdogan said on Tuesday that four people, including a policeman, had died. The national doctors' union confirmed the death toll had climbed from three to four after a protester succumbed to his injuries but gave no further details. Nearly 5 000 people have been injured.

In a speech to lawmakers broadcast live on television, Erdogan 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".

Symbolic gesture


After nearly three hours of confrontations, groups of people milled around Taksim Square largely unopposed, chanting and booing, as police guarded key exit points and continued to set off the occasional burst of tear gas.

In a symbolic gesture, police removed flags and anti-Erdogan banners from a nearby building and replaced them with a single Turkish flag and a large portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, whose image has also been adopted by the protesters.

Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu sought to justify the police intervention, saying the protesters' takeover of Taksim Square "tarnished the country's image before the eyes of the world".

The police would not interfere with the protesters camping out in Gezi Park, he told reporters.

Tens of thousands at the weekend ignored Erdogan's call to end their demonstrations in cities across Turkey after he warned his patience was running out.

Overnight, trouble flared again in the capital Ankara, where riot police doused hundreds of protesters with tear gas for a third consecutive day.

Still favourite

Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics - including journalists, minority Kurds and the military - and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.

But the 59-year-old, in power since 2002, remains the country's favourite politician. His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in the 2011 polls, having presided over strong economic growth.

The premier has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.

Turkey will see both local and presidential elections in 2014. The AKP plans to launch its first campaign rallies in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend, expected to bring tens of thousands into the streets.

"We will take to the squares to make the voices of the silent heard," Erdogan said on Tuesday.

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.

Read more on:    recep tayyip erdogan  |  turkey  |  turkey protests
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