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Istanbul's Taksim Square quiet after chaotic, violent night

June 12, 2013|By Glen Johnson

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- A somber mood hangs over Gezi Park. Just 24 hours ago protesters danced to reggae music and studied together for university exams, sharing food and drink, an array of political views represented as demonstrators engaged in lively conversation.

Now there is stunned silence, following a night of chaos as police swept through the area firing water cannons and tear gas in the worst violence yet of the two-week protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"I feel like I am in a horror movie,” said Havva Dogan, who picked up cigarette butts and rubbish in the park early Wednesday afternoon, cheap rubber gloves wrapped tight around her hands, a gas mask hanging from her neck. "Erdogan is a dictator. He is not only showing his power, but he’s sending us a message: You have no rights."

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Despite repeated reassurances from that protesters would not be harmed, police three times entered the square on Tuesday, charging the crowd and destroying several tents on the fringes of the park while clashing with demonstrators around iconic Taksim Square.

Late into the night, riot police and plainclothes officers stalked the narrow alleys running through central Istanbul.

After a sustained hail of tear-gas canisters and plastic bullets, the Turkish Medical Assn., or TTB, estimated that a minimum of 2,500 people were injured. Of those 130 were shot with plastic bullets, the group said. Seventy people suffered severe head trauma, with two in intensive care after surgery.

Thirty-seven suffered fractured bones. One person lost an eye. Seventeen people suffered heart attacks brought on by the heavy doses of tear gas that blanketed central Istanbul.

"This was the most severe attack the police have launched yet, worse than the initial attack on protesters," said Ozdemir Aktan, chairman of the TTB.

The violence was immediately condemned by rights groups and is likely to scuttle any attempts to find a negotiated end to the impasse in Gezi Park.

"The Turkish government’s decision to send riot police into Taksim Square and to tear gas tens of thousands of peaceful protesters has all but destroyed efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between the government and protesters,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday.

The government defended its democratic credentials, and Erdogan was reportedly due to meet with a delegation of 11 from Gezi Park on Wednesday in Ankara.

"Everybody should know that Turkey is undoubtedly an open society where democratic rights are under the guarantee of laws, and all should respect that," President Abdullah Gul said Wednesday.

But many of the demonstrators, mostly youth born after the political violence that swept Turkey in the 1970s and who represent a strong secular current in the country, said they are just waiting for the police to attack.

“Erdogan is a fascist,” said Basak A. “They will do anything they can to get us out of this park.”

Dogan, picking rubbish from the ground in a now silent park, said she was scared.

“I cannot believe anything my government tells me,” she said. “Maybe the police will come tonight, maybe tomorrow. All we can do is wait.”


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Johnson is a special correspondent.

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