Istanbul: Violence in Large Protest; Erdogan Defiant

Largest anti-government protest in years hits Taksim Square; anger over "Islamization."

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Gil Ronen,

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Police in the Turkish city of Istanbul have pulled out of Taksim square, where the largest anti-government protests in years are taking place.

Thousands of people are gathered in the square after days of violence sparked by plans to redevelop a nearby park. Police have fired tear gas and water cannon several times to break up the riots, and rioters have thrown rocks at police.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul has called for “common sense” to prevail, admitting that the Taksim square protests had reached a “worrisome level”. He called on all sides to be "mature", urging police to "act in proportion.”

The clashes subsided Saturday afternoon, according to CNN, but protests spread to several other cities, including the capital Ankara and the port city of Izmir.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said police may have used excessive force but that the park development will go ahead. "Those who have a problem with the government's policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy," he said in a speech broadcast on television. "I am asking the protesters to immediately end these actions. Police were there yesterday, they'll be on duty today and also tomorrow because Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild."

Erdogan said that he, too, could arrange for supporters of his party to come to the square and demonstrate in large numbers.

In a defiant speech to the exporters' union, he insisted plans to reconstruct an Ottoman era military barracks on the Gezi Park site would go ahead. In addition, he said, a shopping mall "might be built on the ground floor or a city museum".

The protesters say the park is one of the few green spaces left in Istanbul, and that the government is ignoring their appeals for it to be saved. The protest began as a sit-in in the park, but turned violent Friday as police fired tear gas .

The BBC quotes correspondents who say that “what was initially a local issue has spiraled into widespread anti-government unrest and anger over the perceived 'Islamization' of Turkey.”

One woman told Agence France-Presse: "They want to turn this country into an Islamist state, they want to impose their vision all the while pretending to respect democracy."

According to Al Arabiya, “what started as an outcry against a local development project has snowballed into widespread anger against what critics say is the government’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.”

“We have become one fist,” 33-year-old Ataman Bet said as he swept up shattered glass outside his small coffee shop near Taksim. “This has been everybody -- leftist, rightist, even supporters of Erdogan. People are angry, I am so proud of them” he said, calling the damage to his shop a “necessary sacrifice.”