A protester is hit by water from a cannon during clashes in Taksim Square… (Kerim Okten / European Pressphoto…)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Protesters defying a blunt warning from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan engaged in running battles Tuesday with police who unleashed clouds of tear gas and blasts of water cannons in an effort to end nearly two weeks of protest.
After daylong street battles, protesters who were chased away in the early morning swarmed back into Istanbul's central Taksim Square, which has become a focus for grievances in a country long regarded as a model of democracy and economic growth in the Muslim world.
They were met with more tear gas and water cannons, a reflection of a sharp increase in confrontations after several days of relative calm. By late Tuesday neither side appeared to be backing down.
Protesters angered by what they regard as Erdogan's heavy hand spilled into surrounding streets and neighborhoods, adding supporters as they fought to get back to the square. Erdogan, who harshly criticized former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak for his crackdown on "Arab Spring" protesters in 2011, appeared intent on making good on a warning that his patience was at an end.
"Erdogan is a foolish man," said protester Osman Soybir, a civil engineer wearing swimming goggles to protect himself from the tear gas wafting from the square.
"This is not just a disappointment, it's tragic. He has too much power and he showed us today he will use it," Soybir added before another volley of tear gas sent him sprinting down the street.
Istanbul's governor, Huseyin Mutlu, said the police operation would continue until the area was cleared of protesters.
"From this moment on, the unshakable power of our state and our nation will be shown on marginal groups by our police forces," Mutlu said at a news conference.
The unrest began as a peaceful sit-in to protest plans to destroy the adjoining Gezi Park to make way for redevelopment, but it quickly swelled into nationwide demonstrations when police attempted to clear the park of demonstrators. Violence has also flared in other cities, notably in Izmir and the capital, Ankara. At least three people have died, including a police officer, and thousands have been injured, according to a doctors union.
The protesters are made up mostly of middle-class youths largely unaffiliated with any political party. Instead, they represent a fiercely nationalistic and secular current and feel threatened by what they see as Erdogan's authoritarianism and the ruling party's increasing focus on Islamic strictures.
Some opposition leaders, however, have joined in condemning the police crackdown.
The government's response, instead of defusing the situation, is "creating the opposite effect," Faruk Logoglu, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. "On one hand the government says ... we respect your democratic rights -- then they attack with full force."
Erdogan, who has won three consecutive elections, has dismissed the protesters as hooligans and extremists and rejected comparisons to the Arab Spring uprisings.
Turkey's thriving multiparty democracy and vibrant economy bear little resemblance to the autocracies that ruled Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen or the current government in Syria. Although Erdogan may have underestimated the protesters' resolve, he retains considerable support.
"To those who ... are at Taksim and elsewhere taking part in the demonstrations with sincere feelings, I call on you to leave those places and to end these incidents, and I send you my love," Erdogan said in a televised address to lawmakers from his Justice and Development Party in Ankara.
"But for those who want to continue with the incidents I say: 'It's over.' As of now we have no tolerance for them," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. "Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists, and no one will get away with it."
Tuesday's violence began with a dawn raid at the square, which has seen demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands in recent days, although just a few hundred were camped out overnight. Hundreds of police officers backed by armored vehicles overran improvised barricades and moved into the area, tearing down posters and banners that festooned the square.
A small group of protesters -- scarves wrapped around their heads -- hurled Molotov cocktails and aimed fireworks at police positioned under a statue in the center of Taksim Square. Others set a vehicle ablaze, sending smoke into the sky.
Control of the square appeared to change hands several times during the day. Just before the police, who had pulled back in the early evening, launched dozens of tear-gas shells about 8:30 p.m., there was a festive air among the swelling crowds of demonstrators returning to the area. They danced, waved banners and chanted "Erdogan resign."
The tear gas sent a wave of panic through the crowd. Protesters ran through side streets and into cafes.
"We are seeing lots of injuries, mostly from head trauma, a lot of people gagging from tear gas," said a volunteer at a makeshift field hospital that was aiding protesters near Gezi Park. She asked to be identified only as Gizem P.
Special correspondent Johnson reported from Istanbul and Times staff writer Zavis from Los Angeles. Staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.