Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of Turkish cities on Saturday, challenging Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call to end their civil uprising with a chorus of angry chants and a shower of red flares, AFP reported.
The government said the protests were “under control” even as the largest crowds yet packed every inch of Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicenter of nine days of nationwide unrest.
As the sun set over Taksim, fans from rival soccer teams Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray united in the square. They set off red flares to loud cheers from the crowd, according to AFP.
In the capital Ankara, hundreds of riot police used tear gas and water cannon late Saturday to disperse some 5,000 demonstrators from the central Kizilay Square, the news agency reported.
The police pursued the protesters who took refuge in side streets off the square, which is the nerve center of the Turkish capital. Several people were injured, local television reported.
The political turmoil erupted after police cracked down heavily on a small campaign to save Gezi Park from demolition, spiraling into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have left three dead and thousands injured, tarnishing Turkey's image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik, speaking after a meeting between the premier and top AKP officials, downplayed the rallies that flew in the face of Erdogan’s demand on Friday to immediately end the protests.
“The process is under the control of the government, and is becoming normalized and increasingly in line with common sense,” he told reporters in Istanbul, according to AFP.
He also dismissed any talk of calling early elections to resolve the crisis. “You don’t decide on early elections because people are marching on the streets.”
In a bid to calm tensions, Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas on Saturday said the park would not be turned into a shopping mall, as some feared.
But the reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks at the site would go ahead because it “was part of our election promises,” he said, echoing earlier comments by the premier.
The protesters in Gezi Park, who say they have seen their civil rights and freedoms steadily erode under Erdogan, rejected the olive branch.
“A week ago, I could never imagine myself sleeping out on the streets of Istanbul,” 22-year-old Aleyna, wrapped up under a blanket with a stray kitten and pointing to her dirty clothes, told AFP. “Now I don’t know how I can ever go back.”
Erdogan has faced international condemnation for his handling of the unrest in Turkey, a NATO member and key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.
The EU on Friday called for a “swift” probe into police violence in the clashes, but Erdogan hit back, saying those involved in a similar protest would in any European country “face a harsher response.”
The national doctors’ union says the civil unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.
Erdogan, whose AKP party first took power in 2002, has accused the main opposition Republican People's Party of having a hand in the protests.
The prime minister has rejected claims that he is a “dictator” and has also accused social media of playing a major part in the protests against his government.